Next-gen telescope project honors astronomer Vera Rubin and billionaire backer Charles Simonyi

An artist’s conception shows the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope scanning the night sky in Chile. (LSST Illustration)

The next great ground-based astronomical observatory, previously known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, has been named after the late astronomer Vera Rubin — with a nod to Seattle software billionaire Charles Simonyi as well.

  • Thanks to an act of Congress that became law in December, the U.S.-funded observatory in Chile is now known as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. The new name, celebrated at last week’s American Astronomical Society meeting, honors a scientist who documented evidence for the existence of dark matter in the 1970s and 1980s, and passed away in 2016. The Vera Rubin Observatory is due to go into operation by 2023 to shed new light on astronomical targets ranging from near-Earth asteroids and exoplanets to dark matter itself.
  • The observatory’s wide-field telescope, which boasts an 8.4-meter (27.6-foot) primary mirror, is now known as the Simonyi Survey Telescope — in honor of the software executive who pioneered the development of Microsoft Word and went on to make two multimillion-dollar trips to the International Space Station. The managers of the LSST project, whose initials now stand for “Legacy Survey of Space and Time,” say the telescope’s name recognizes the $20 million contribution that Simonyi made to the effort in 2008, early in its construction phase. (Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates joined in back then with a $10 million gift.)
  • The honor for Rubin, who missed out on receiving a Nobel Prize while she lived, was widely hailed as long-overdue recognition — although Barbarina Zwicky, the daughter of the late astronomer Fritz Zwicky, saw it as a slight to her father’s role in the discovery of dark matter. The honor for Simonyi also drew criticism from some quarters, in part because Simonyi has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to President Donald Trump’s campaign and other GOP causes.

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