Carolina Receives Grants for New Telescopes in Chile

UNC has received two National Science Foundation grants totaling $912,000 to build six telescopes in Chile that will study the most distant objects in the universe.

The six Panchromatic Robotic Optical Monitoring and Polarimetry Telescopes, or PROMPT, will be built at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the Andes and are designed to study powerful but distant explosions called gamma-ray bursts.

“The newest telescopes in Chile will be a unique addition to our growing battery of telescopes – there is no other system in the world like it,” said Daniel Reichart, assistant professor of physics and astronomy in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences and the lead researcher for the NSF-funded project.

In April, UNC helped dedicate the Southern Astrophysical Research, or SOAR, telescope, on Cerro Pachon, Chile. The 4.1-meter aperture telescope is funded by a public-private partnership among UNC, the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the Ministry of Science of Brazil and Michigan State University. SOAR is expected to begin routine science operations later this year.

“With PROMPT and our existing telescope in Chile and a soon-to-be dedicated telescope in South Africa, we will have more guaranteed access to the Southern Hemisphere sky than any other U.S. institution,” Reichart said.

The new telescopes in Chile also will open fields of study for undergraduate and high school education statewide, thanks to a consortium of 11 N.C. colleges and universities and remote operating technology available online and at UNC’s Morehead Observatory.

UNC is the lead partner in the PROMPT project, with research collaborators at Appalachian State University, Elon University, Fayetteville State University, Guilford Technical Community College, N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina University, as well as Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.

Each partner will have about 420 hours of annual observing time among the PROMPT telescopes. Students and faculty researchers will be able to observe the Southern Hemisphere skies over Chile using PROMPT through special remote technology. With PROMPT, students and researchers will simply submit observing requests using a Web interface. PROMPT will automatically observe each target, usually within a few days, and then return the collected images to the students for analysis.

When not chasing gamma-ray bursts, PROMPT also will be used by public school students statewide for a wide variety of projects. UNC’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center will have about 2,300 hours per year for K-12 education and public outreach.

Funded by a $50,000 NASA grant, the Morehead Center is developing a curriculum for high school science classes that will allow them to submit observing requests to PROMPT using the same Web interface that the college student-researchers will use. This curriculum also will satisfy a new statewide graduation requirement.

“For the state as a whole, the telescopes will be a tremendous resource for undergraduates and high school students,” Reichart said. “By putting professional telescopes squarely in the hands of young people, we hope to inspire the next generation of astronomers and scientists.”

PROMPT is being built in two phases. Construction for the first phase is scheduled to begin this month. Some of the instrumentation for the telescopes is being built in the Goodman Laboratory for Astronomical Instrumentation on the UNC campus, before being shipped to Chile.

In September, 15 UNC undergraduate students will travel to the PROMPT and SOAR sites in Chile with astronomers Gerald Cecil and Wayne Christiansen and graduate student Jane Moran. The group will assemble PROMPT as part of a semester-long Burch Field Research Seminar study-abroad program. Students also will conduct research using the SOAR telescope.

The first phase is scheduled for completion this year, and the second phase, which supports a major equipment upgrade, is scheduled for completion in mid-2005.

Once completed, PROMPT will be monitored every night by graduate and undergraduate students working at UNC’s new Henry Cox Remote Observing Center, located in Morehead Observatory.

Astronomers only recently have learned that gamma-ray bursts result when stars more than 30 times as massive as the sun reach the end of their lives and collapse to form black holes, Reichart said.

Since gamma rays do not penetrate Earth’s atmosphere, PROMPT will be fed targets from spacecraft that have been designed to find gamma-ray bursts. The most powerful satellite will be NASA’s Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission, which is due to be launched later this year. Swift is expected to discover one gamma-ray burst every few days and to transmit coordinates to computers on the ground within tens of seconds of each explosion.

PROMPT then will observe these gamma-ray bursts at visible and infrared wavelengths, and it will do so within seconds of spacecraft notification, when they are still expected to be very bright, even if at great distances, Reichart said.

Since humans cannot react on so rapid a timescale, PROMPT will be entirely controlled by computers.

UNC is the founding partner of the SOAR consortium and will lead the gamma-ray burst research conducted there. SOAR will use PROMPT gamma-ray bursts as cosmic backlights to probe the early universe in even more powerful ways.

The PROMPT project is the brainchild of Reichart, who received the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Robert J. Trumpler Award for top doctoral dissertation research in North America in 2003. His research, which links gamma-ray bursts to the deaths of massive stars, also made Science Magazine’s “Top 10 Breakthroughs in Science” list in 1999.

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