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Explore the Cosmos with CIERA


New and long-time donors to the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration & Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) gained exclusive access to one of the ten largest telescopes in the world at the MMT Observatory in southern Arizona in October. The inaugural tour led by CIERA faculty is one of the special opportunities donors experience when they support CIERA’s efforts to answer some of the most profound mysteries about the Cosmos and humanity’s place within it.During the tour, CIERA supporters Fran (’72) and Paul (’71,’79 MBA) Kent announced a 2022-23 academic year matching challenge to further CIERA’s mission. While they are continuing their support of CIERA’s mission on an annual basis, Fran and Paul are looking “for ways to not only increase what we give, but to give in ways that generate greater exposure of CIERA and expand its reach by encouraging the support of others too.”

CIERA is a university-wide center with broad interdisciplinary activities in education, leadership, and research. All its core activities are designed to bring together thought leadership from across Northwestern to pursue answers to some of the most profound mysteries facing humanity. This research encompasses theory, data science, instrumentation, and observing, all contributing to CIERA’s eminence in astronomy. Part of CIERA’s observing program involves access to the largest ground-based telescopes in the world, including the 6.5-meter MMT at the summit of Mount Hopkins in the Sonoran Desert south of Tucson. The MMT is one of the 10 largest telescopes in the world, and one that Northwestern is invested in for its astronomy observers. On Oct. 14, CIERA faculty and Vice President for Research Milan Mrksich traveled to Tucson, joined by a group of CIERA donors and friends for a special access visit to the MMT with behind-the-scenes tours.

Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab

The day began with a personal tour of the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab, the premier astronomical mirror-making facility in the world. Enormous mirrors are at the heart of modern astronomical telescopes, and the CIERA group was able to see two mirrors currently being fabricated that will be part of the seven-mirror configuration of the forthcoming Giant Magellan Telescope.


MMT Observatory

The trip’s main event was a visit to the MMT Observatory, perched at an altitude of 8,583 feet. Normally, the telescope is “parked” facing upward, but for  our visit it was pivoted downward, allowing CIERA visitors to look into the mirror up close. The telescope moved virtually without a sound or shudder. Such exquisite precision is necessary for making accurate astronomical observations, but witnessing tons of steel and glass moving so quietly inspires a profound respect for the engineering teams that designed and built the telescope.


The building is no less remarkable — matched precisely to the telescope’s size, the clearance with the walls as the telescope moves up and down is only a few feet. But the true wonder is that the building’s entire structure rotates with the telescope as it pivots to follow the sky.

Kent Family Matching Gift Challenge

After the Observatory tour, the group enjoyed dinner on the mountain, where CIERA Director Vicky Kalogera received a card from Fran Kent, a CIERA supporter and BoV member, announcing a generous gift to CIERA. Fran and Paul Kent are sponsoring a unique giving opportunity that includes a matching challenge. Fran and Paul have broadened their support for CIERA and announced a new initiative intended to spark further expansion in CIERA’s endowment outreach network: “Fran and I are willing to give $100,000 matched by new committed supporter to CIERA through this school year….”. A great start to what promises to be an exciting year at CIERA!

We are pleased to announce thatthe first pledge to the Kent Challengehas already been made!


Be the next to pledge!
If you have any questions about the Kent Family Gift Challenge or CIERA’s Mission, contact Curtrice Scott.