The University of Utah's astronomy program became full-fledged Wednesday with the official unveiling of the department's first reflective research telescope, which was mounted last summer on a peak in southwest Utah.
Researchers at the U. have a long and noted history — since the mid-1960s — of astrophysics research, mainly through a neutrino detector buried 2,000 feet below Park City and a collection of surface-mounted mirrors. That includes the High Resolution Fly's Eye cosmic ray detector that operated near Dugway from May 1997 to April 2006 and tracked the shower of energy particles from outer space that are invisible to the naked eye and bombard the earth's atmosphere.
The new $860,000, 36-inch reflective telescope, located atop Frisco Peak, 9,600 feet above Milford, is small compared to the monster sky scanners like those in neighboring Arizona. But its location — the last of the darkest night sky locations in the country — will provide a unique research observation perch for faculty, college students and eventually high school students, said Wayne Springer, who heads the project and is an associate professor of physics and astronomy.
The telescope has the added feature of being remotely controlled. The department has applied for $300,000 from the National Science Foundation to equip the observatory with the capability of working it from the U. campus 250 miles away by the end of next summer.
The road to Frisco Peak was a rocky one, literally, Springer said, noting that the rock-infested terrain racked up about two-dozen flat tires on contractor vehicles making their way back and forth during construction this past summer.
Also, Springer and others spent a year and a half checking out other area mountaintops before settling on Frisco Peak. Like human adventurers, both land-based or seagoing, astronomers went by the North Star in selecting the site, Springer said. They measured how much it twinkles, then calculated how well the universe could be observed from the various peaks.
The first image from the telescope isn't a well-known galaxy but it's beautiful, Springer said, noting that the "first light" captured by the observatory is 24 million light years away.
"Things are looking fantastic. The seeing conditions here rival that of the best in the world — at least on the nights that we've looked," Springer said.
The university announced plans for the telescope in 2006 and Springer says he is "relieved, excited and exuberant" that it has started observing the sky.
For several months, astronomers mainly will be "tweaking it" — making adjustments and calibrations and evaluating observing conditions, he said.
Full scientific observations should begin in earnest next spring, and Springer says he hopes students will be able to use it even sooner — if another grant is approved for a tracked, all-terrain vehicle needed to reach the observatory during the snowy months.
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