Scientific Sample

The UA explores everything from the inner mind to the outer limits

Here's a taste of the extraordinary work being done in the UA College of Science.

Steward Observatory Mirror Lab

Some of the most innovative telescope mirrors in the world are crafted in the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab beneath Arizona Stadium.

In the 1980s, UA astronomy professor Roger Angel and his team pioneered the idea of building honeycombed mirrors that were lighter, cheaper and more temperature-sensitive than solid mirrors. The lab's mirrors—as large as 8.4 meters across—have been used in the Large Binocular Telescope atop Mount Graham, the Multiple Mirror Telescope on Mount Hopkins and the Giant Magellan Telescope under construction in Chile, among others.

Angel now wants to use that same ingenuity to reduce the cost of solar energy.

"Now the mirror lab is getting engaged in the technology to create cheap mirrors for solar energy, in order to make it more competitive with coal," says Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the UA College of Science. "Roger is looking at the next-generation, solar-energy factory, if you want to look at it that way, in which mirrors focus the solar energy into photo-voltaic cells, increasing the amount of energy the photo-voltaic cells can produce. It's all being done by a group that is expert at that sort of thing: the astronomers."

Want to see more? Tours of the Mirror Lab can be arranged by calling 626-8792.

The Phoenix Mars Mission

The Phoenix Mars Mission captured headlines for months last year, after a team from the UA Lunar and Planetary Lab worked with NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other universities to put a robotic lab on the surface of Mars to search for traces of water. Between its landing on Memorial Day weekend and early November, the plucky probe transmitted photographs and data on the soil and atmosphere that researchers are still sifting through. Last month, four papers about the mission were published in Science. In one, Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith and 36 co-authors examined the likelihood that the landing area once had a thin film of water on its surface, which "implies that this region could have previously met the criteria for habitability."

The HiRISE Camera

Since March 2006, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been beaming pictures of Mars back to Earth. The camera is the brainchild of Alfred McEwen of the Lunar and Planetary Lab, who leads the team that controls the camera from here on Earth and examines the photos as they are beamed back to the UA. Each week, a new batch of dazzling photos is loaded onto the HiRISE Web site ( for the public to view.

Tumamoc Hill

Many Tucsonans just enjoy the hike to the top of Tumamoc Hill, but it's also home to a research lab that has been studying the surrounding 860 acres of desert for more than a century. First established by the Carnegie Foundation in 1903, the lab is considered one of the birthplaces of modern ecological science.

"Tumamoc shows what happens to the desert when the city encroaches on it," says Ruiz. "There's a tremendous history of observations at Tumamoc Hill that will help inform us of what's going to happen to cities in the future as they grow bigger."

Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research

Since 1937, scientists at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research have been studying sections of trees to better understand the earth's ecology. The lab's director, Thomas Swetnam, is an expert on forest health.

Malcolm Hughes, a regents' professor of dendrochronology who works in the lab, has studied changes in climate dating back centuries. Hughes was one of three authors of a study that produced the so-called "hockey-stick graph," which shows a dramatic increase in Northern Hemisphere temperatures in the last 100 years.

"That graph is shown in almost every document on climate change," says Ruiz. "The tree-ring lab was one of the places where the key observations about the reality of global climate change were discovered.