Nov. 28, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 7

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    Remote-controlled Apache Point telescope first of new generation

    The world's first completely remote-controlled, large ground-based telescope -- owned and operated by the Astrophysical Research Consortium -- will become fully operational on Thursday, Dec. 1. The new 3.5-meter telescope is the first of a modern generation of large telescopes designed from the outset to be remotely controlled by astronomers.

    The telescope is located at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, on a peak high in the Sacramento Mountains. But astronomers hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the site can operate the telescope from their desktop computers.

    "The unique flexibility of this telescope means that we can schedule users by the hour rather than by the night," said observatory director Donald York, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics. "If an astronomer wants to follow the evolution of the light signature of a supernova, for example, he or she may need to use the telescope only for an hour or two a night over a period of several months. We can easily accommodate that, while at the same time serving many other users because we can change instruments so quickly. This is the only telescope in the world with that kind of flexibility."

    In addition to the University of Chicago, universities participating in the telescope project include New Mexico State, Princeton, the University of Washington and Washington State. The $11 million telescope was supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation; the aforementioned ARC members contributed the remaining funds. It is the fourth largest university-operated telescope in the world.

    The December schedule demonstrates how the telescope's flexibility will affect how astronomers do their work, York said. As many as four users are scheduled per night, and two-thirds of the observing will be done remotely.

    The following are some of the projects currently under way:

    _ Measuring the shape of gravitational lenses. These massive objects cannot usually be viewed directly, but because they have the ability to bend light, their properties can be measured by taking repeated pictures of the light from distant quasars behind them. Ed Turner of Princeton will use the telescope for one hour every other night to trace the variability in the light and from that infer the geometry of the lens.

    _ Probing the ancient structure of the universe. York and Dan Vanden Berk, a graduate student in Astronomy & Astrophysics, will be probing the distant, and therefore ancient, structure of the universe by looking at faraway quasars. If they find that the three-dimensional structure of the universe at early times is uniform -- without clustering -- they will confirm cosmologists' current theories about how the universe began. If they find structure, then cosmologists will have to rethink their ideas about the relationship between matter and structure in the universe.

    _ Measuring the fading of distant supernovas. Heidi Newberg of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Michael Richmond of Princeton will point the telescope at distant supernovas, using it to follow the supernovas for a few hours each night as they slowly fade from view. These studies may help to determine more accurately the Hubble constant -- the key to the age of the universe.

    _ Searching in our galaxy for more of a certain unusual type of star that spews out jets of material at nearly the speed of light. Bruce Margon of the University of Washington, who found the first of these stars in 1978, is using the 3.5-meter telescope to try to find more of them.

    _ Looking at the previously invisible outer shells of dying stars. Julie Lutz and Tom Lutz of Washington State are "uncloaking" these planetary nebulae -- dying stars that are shedding matter -- by looking at the cool outer shells that emit light of very long wavelengths.

    _ Searching for the intermediate structure of the universe. Steve Doe and Jack Burns of New Mexico State are studying loosely clustered galaxies to determine whether they form coherent structure or are merely distributed randomly. This determination will give clues to how the universe itself formed.

    Professional astronomers aren't the only ones who will benefit from the remote-observing capabilities of the new Apache Point telescope. At Chicago's Adler Planetarium, visitors will be able to look over the professionals' shoulders. Chicago's Vanden Berk plans to do his observing directly from the planetarium in the evenings, and other astronomers may choose to let their data be available to the public as well. Adler astronomers will be able to use Adler's remote observing station to operate the telescope directly and aim it at bright planets and stars during the day.