McDonald Observatory receives $750,000 gift from Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation

7 June 2005

AUSTIN, Texas — The W.J. McDonald Observatory of The University of Texas at Austin has received a pledge of a $750,000 joint donation from George P. and Cynthia W. Mitchell, The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, and the George and Cynthia Mitchell Charitable Remainder Unitrust.

The gift will fund cosmology research and public education in astronomy.

Two-thirds of the gift ($500,000) will be used for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). The project is led by University of Texas at Austin astronomers Karl Gebhardt, Gary Hill, and Phillip MacQueen.

Discovered in the past few years, dark energy is a mysterious force which causes space to push against itself, making the universe expand faster than expected. Dark energy makes up about 70 percent of the matter-energy content of the universe (another 25 percent is dark matter, and only about five percent is normal matter we can see). Though it makes up the largest amount of “stuff” in the universe, no one knows much about dark energy.

The goal of HETDEX is to provide the first fundamental observational constraints on dark energy. It will be the largest galaxy survey ever undertaken. Several other planned studies are targeting dark energy, but the very distant galaxies - and thus, very early age of the universe - that HETDEX will explore provides a probe that no other survey will obtain.

“HETDEX offers Texas the ability to be the most important player in understanding dark energy, a role that could place us as a standard reference in textbooks,” Gebhardt said.

The Mitchell monies will fund the construction of a prototype of an instrument called VIRUS for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, which will measure the positions in space of 10,000 galaxies every night. When built, VIRUS will map out a million galaxies in 100 nights.

“This gift enables us to build the prototype spectrograph for VIRUS,” said David L. Lambert, director of McDonald Observatory. “We are now out of the starting blocks for a most exciting race to define dark energy. May the Hobby-Eberly Telescope win.”

More information on HETDEX is available online here .

The remaining one-third of the Mitchell donation ($250,000) will be used to create the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation Education Endowment. Beneficiaries will be designated “The Mitchell Scholars.” It will help to fund McDonald Observatory's programs for K-12 student field experiences, K-12 teacher professional-development workshops, as well as efforts in the field of distance education.

“School kids are excited by astronomy,” Lambert said. “The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation Education Endowment will help us keep kids and their teachers excited about astronomy, in particular, and science, in general.”

To find out more about these workshops and about the Mitchell Scholars Program, please contact Marc Wetzel by phone at (432) 426-3672 or via e-mail.

Other gifts to The University of Texas at Austin from the Mitchells include support for the College of Engineering, the School of Architecture, the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science Teaching and the University of Texas Elementary Charter School.

George P. Mitchell is the founder of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp., noted for its success in both energy and real estate development. Throughout his business career, Mitchell has cultivated interests in philanthropy, civics and global issues, ranging from the environment and sustainable development to the implications of science and technology.

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