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UC Santa Cruz professor Claire Max named director of UC Observatories

Claire Max, an astronomy and astrophysics professor at UC Santa Cruz who served as interim director of the UC Observatories, was appointed director. (University of California Office of the President)

By Eliza Blackorby

Aug. 27, 2015 1:20 p.m.

University of California President Janet Napolitano appointed Monday a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz as director of the UC Observatories, a research unit conducting work on multiple campuses.

Claire Max, who has a doctorate in astrophysical sciences and has served as interim director of the UC Observatories since July 2014, will fulfill a five-year term as director for the UC Observatories, beginning retroactively on July 1.

The UC Observatories operates the Lick Observatory and runs the technical laboratories at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz.

The UC Observatories is the UC’s primary organizer on the Thirty Meter Telescope project, which aims to build the world’s largest and most powerful telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii by the early 2020s. It is also a managing partner of the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, where much of the UC’s astronomy research is conducted.

Max is especially known for her research in plasma physics and astronomical instrumentation, including her work on the development of the laser guide star adaptive optics system, which allows for clearer telescope images of the cosmos.

She said the UC Observatories is awaiting a Hawaii Supreme Court decision later this month on the Thirty Meter Telescope before resuming construction. The court plans to rule on a claim that the proposed telescope, which has been protested by some Native Hawaiians as infringing on sacred, indigenous land, is not operating on a legal permit.

The UC Observatories plans to increase support for the UCLA and UC Santa Cruz technical labs because they are each building a critical instrument for the Thirty Meter Telescope, Max said.

Max said her long-term plans for the UC Observatory revolve around how to maintain the relevance of smaller telescopes, like those at the Lick and Keck observatories, as bigger telescopes like the Thirty Meter Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor, are developed.

The Lick Observatory, founded in 1888 on Mount Hamilton outside of San Jose, is the first of several UC observatory outposts and has recently faced serious budget problems. The observatory had uncertain funding until earlier this year, when Google donated $1 million to the research institution.

“When giant telescopes are up and running, the role of our existing telescopes are going to have to change because … we won’t be biggest kid on the block anymore,” Max said. “But (at Lick and Keck observatories) we will have a lot more observing time than on the bigger telescopes.”

Max added that the UC Observatories is actively fundraising for the Lick Observatory through individuals, corporations and scientific partnerships which would have collaborators pay for telescope access.

Compiled by Eliza Blackorby, Bruin reporter.

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