Tuesday, August 30, 2016

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SDSU's Mt. Laguna Observatory in the Cleveland National Forest is an ideal spot for astronomical research. Photo: Jeneene Chatowsky
 


New Eye in the Sky

A new telescope will let SDSU astronomers see farther into the universe than ever before—from the comfort of their own labs.
By Michael Price, video by Jeneene Chatowsky
 

This story is featured in the fall 2014 issue of 360:The Magazine of San Diego State University.

You couldn’t ask for a much better spot for gazing into the heavens than the Laguna Mountains in eastern San Diego County. At 6,100 feet above sea level, you’re above a good chunk of the ground-level atmosphere that occludes a telescope’s view.

The weather is clear most days of the year, and the calm westerly winds keep the air smooth, like the surface of an undisturbed pond. It’s far enough away from civilization that light pollution is minimal, yet San Diego State University’s Mount Laguna Observatory is only about an hour’s drive from the main campus.

“I would argue that in the continental United States, we have the best astronomical site,” said Allen Shafter, professor and chair of the SDSU astronomy department.

What has always been an outstanding site for astronomical research just got even better, thanks to the addition of the brand new 1.25-meter (about 50-inch) Phillips Claud Telescope. The $1.5 million state-of-the-art instrument was made possible by a gift from the late amateur astronomer and philanthropist Phillips L. Claud Jr., who funded more than half of the telescope’s cost.

The Claud Telescope is a reflecting telescope, meaning it uses precisely polished curved mirrors to reflect light and form an image. There is no magnifying lens.

While it can’t compete with the world’s largest reflecting telescopes, which measure around 10 meters in diameters, the Claud Telescope is about 10 inches larger in diameter than the 40-inch instrument that was formerly the observatory’s largest. Because a telescope’s light-gathering power grows exponentially with the surface area of its primary mirror, the new telescope is approximately 50 percent more powerful than the older 40-inch telescope.

In other words, it’s a dramatic upgrade for the Mount Laguna Observatory, one that will allow SDSU’s astronomers to see farther and more clearly into the night sky than before, as well as encourage students to hone their stargazing skills.

High on the mountain

SDSU’s astronomy department is one of only a handful of universities around the world that operates its own mountaintop observatory. Including the Claud, the observatory has four operable telescopes, two of which are considered to be “research-grade.”

A couple of rustic, cabin-like apartments are available to guests, but most researchers and graduate students stay overnight in a windowless fireproof bunker, complete with a science fiction library, a spartan collection of VHS tapes (including, naturally, the original Star Wars trilogy), and a Nintendo Entertainment System.

The dome for the Claud Telescope was originally built to house an experimental “ULTRA” (Ultra Lightweight Technology for Research in Astronomy) telescope using a polished carbon-fiber mirror. Around 2005, it became apparent that this speculative technology just wasn’t going to work.

Wanting to advance SDSU’s astronomical research capabilities—and not wanting to waste a perfectly good building and dome—Shafter and others in the department, including former department chair Paul Etzel, sought funding for a new telescope, which led to the Claud.

One of the biggest strengths of the new telescope is that it is designed to be robotic and remotely operable. That means astronomers won’t have to physically be up at Mount Laguna to point the telescope and collect data.

“Having a remote facility enables us to have a modern observing campaign,” said Robert Quimby, associate professor of astronomy and the observatory’s newly hired director.

The young astronomer is notable for having discovered several of the brightest supernovae ever observed, as well as for his ongoing research into why some of these supernovae are up to 100 times brighter than average.

Observing time

Remote, robotic capabilities make it easier for Quimby and his colleagues to do longitudinal astronomical studies, which are important for many cutting-edge lines of research. For example, with Quimby’s supernova research, he doesn’t need to watch the same point in the sky for hours at a time.

He would rather observe a single point for a couple minutes per day over the course of a few months, freeing up the telescope for other astronomers who want to observe their own coordinates. The Claud Telescope makes this possible, although it will be some time before the instrument becomes fully robotic.

“Limited observing time simply is not an issue here, unlike at some other facilities,” Shafter said.

Shafter and Quimby said that although the Claud Telescope probably isn’t large enough to beat bigger telescopes in detecting any new secrets of the galaxy, it can pay closer attention to discoveries that the world’s enormous telescopes just don’t have the time to follow up on.

“To do quality research, you don’t have to look deeper and further than the other guys,” Quimby said. “You just have to be there at the right place and the right time.”