UM One Step Closer to Discovering New Worlds

December 18, 2014

MISSOULA – “First light” marked a new dawn for University of Montana astronomy on Dec. 16. 

UM astrophysics Associate Professor Nate McCrady, along with a team of researchers, achieved “first light” on Tuesday – a term used to describe successfully taking first observations from a telescope.

McCrady traveled from Missoula to Mount Hopkins, Ariz., to oversee the installation of UM’s new 0.7-meter telescope by crane at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory.

The UM-owned telescope is part of Project MINERVA, a multi-telescope observatory designed to hunt for rocky planets similar to Earth around nearby stars. The project involves four telescopes, each worth about $250,000 and owned by different institutions.

With 0.7-meter collecting mirrors, the telescopes work together – flying in formation – to create the power of a telescope with a 1.4-meter mirror that would cost several million dollars.

The telescope owners are UM, Harvard, Penn State and the University of New South Wales in Australia. University of New South Wales also successfully installed its telescope at the site on Tuesday.

“This is a big moment for our astronomy program,” McCrady said of the event. “It places UM shoulder to shoulder with our partner institutions, doing cutting-edge research in exoplanet science.”

Currently, the telescopes owned by Harvard and Penn State are undergoing testing in Pasadena, Calif., and soon also will be installed atop the mountain with the other two telescopes.

The telescopes are housed 7,600 feet above sea level at the Whipple Observatory, which was selected as the site because it offers an average of 300 clear nights a year for observation. McCrady said the site’s other advantage is its talented and capable observatory staff.

McCrady and his team are still in the testing phase, but they are expecting to collect and monitor the data beginning in January. The telescopes will collect data robotically, and may be operated directly from McCrady's lab on campus via an Internet link. UM students also will be able to operate the telescope from campus and download the images for analysis.  

“This telescope provides a world-class facility and observation site for UM faculty and student research,” McCrady said. “Our students will now have access to a top-notch astrophysics tool at a truly professional site.”

Harvard and Penn State paid for their telescopes directly, while UM received a $1.125 million NASA grant to fund Montana’s telescope and three years of research. New South Wales received its funding at the end of 2013.

The MINERVA team plans to do a formal dedication event sometime in early 2015. At this event, all four telescopes will be in place and representatives from all of the partner institutions will be present.

Contact: Nate McCrady, , associate professor, UM Department of Physics and Astronomy, 406-243-2041, nate.mccrady@umontana.edu.