On Tuesday, the roof of the Skaggs building became home to a new 16-inch telescope that is under construction.
The telescope will provide between 250 and 300 students a year with access to state-of-the-art research equipment, said Nate McCrady, associate professor of astrophysics.
For years, University of Montana physics students have studied the cosmos through an 11-inch telescope that had to be set up by hand every time it was used, a process that took at least 45 minutes. It took another 15 minutes to take down.
“On iffy nights, we didn’t go out before, because you didn’t want to spend an hour and a half setting up and have the clouds roll in. And that happened to us,” McCrady said. “We’ll get a lot of observing time now on nights that are marginal, where before, the set-up time ruled it out.”
With the new telescope, students will be able to work from the comfort of a heated building. The telescope will be outfitted so it can be operated entirely with computers. The power switch and the dome will be operated manually, but the rest can be done with software.
A UM grant for improvement in student instruction paid for the telescope and dome, McCrady said.
Russell Stanberry, a junior studying physics, said he is learning how to use the computer software and writing a manual so other students can use it.
“It will tell students how to use the telescope from inside so they don’t have to go outside and figure it out themselves,” Stanberry said.
A permanent telescope also means students won’t have to align the telescope every time they use it and can simply plug in coordinates to find a star or planet.
The technology and access really opens the doors for students’ research, McCrady said. New possibilities include researching the physics of eclipsing binary stars — two stars that rotate each other so that one will occasionally block the view from Earth of the other, he said. It will also provide follow up for Project Minerva — a collaborative study that UM is involved in that searches nearby stars for planets that may be capable of sustaining life, he said.
Stanberry hopes to use the telescope for astrophotography, taking pictures of distant galaxies and star clusters.
The benefit of having a dedicated telescope on campus will be exclusive access for projects students are working on, so they can study specific subjects over long time periods.
But there are downsides too. The light from the city and on-campus buildings will limit their research on fainter stars. Skaggs is situated right below the Health Sciences building, which has multiple night labs. The astronomy department has coordinated with the building to install blackout curtains in labs that will be using lights at night, but they don’t always use them, McCrady said.
Even still, the pros far outweigh the cons.
“It’s a real nice capability for this University. It’s a real win for our students in the department and for students who take our non-major. It’s a new research platform,” McCrady said.
This telescope is the same power as the telescope used by the University of Washington, which has a distinguished graduate astronomy program.
McCrady hopes it will be up and usable by next week, and students in his observational lab class will be able use it throughout spring semester.