Campus: Sonoma State University -- July 19, 2004

Sonoma State University Launches Global Telescope Network

Sonoma State University is about to peer farther into the depths of the Universe.

Partnering with the California Academy of Sciences, the NASA Education and Public Outreach Group at Sonoma State University has completed construction of a new astronomical observatory. The telescope will observe distant galaxies, super-magnetic dead stars, and possibly the largest explosions in the known Universe: gamma-ray bursts.

The telescopic observatory is located at the Pepperwood preserve in Sonoma County, a few miles northeast of Windsor. While SSU has had an astronomical observatory on-campus since 1976, this new facility is more powerful, is beyond most of the coastal fog, and is in a very dark location in the county far removed from major artificial light sources.

The grounds are already home to the Academy's Hume Observatory, which houses three telescopes. Bing F. Quock, Acting Chairman of the Academy's Morrison Planetarium, said "The Academy is delighted to be involved in this exciting project by providing the location for the SSU telescope. It adds a direct connection to major astronomical research to our activities and helps further the Academy's mission of exploring and explaining the natural world, which, of course, includes the rest of the Universe."

The SSU telescope, which has a 14" mirror and sensitive electronic detector, is operated remotely, using computer controls, while the astronomer can be sitting miles or even thousands of miles away. Professor Lynn Cominsky, director of the SSU outreach group, said "This telescope puts SSU and the California Academy of Sciences on the cutting edge of astronomical science. Robotic telescopes are changing the way we do astronomy."

The telescope was funded through the Gamma-Ray Large Area Space Telescope, or GLAST, a joint NASA/DOE observatory which will launch in 2007. GLAST will observe high-energy radiation from black holes, including enormous black holes found in the cores of galaxies. Ground-based telescopes are needed to monitor the light coming from these galaxies, to help astronomers better understand these exotic phenomena.

"By observing galaxies at different energies-different kinds of light, like optical, gamma-ray, and X-ray-we can better understand the underlying physics of these galaxies. Even relatively small telescopes like ours can provide important data, critical data," Cominsky added.

The SSU Pepperwood observatory - nicknamed GORT, for the GLAST Optical Robotic Telescope-is the flagship of a network of robotic telescopes located across the country, and eventually the entire Earth. These telescopes will form the Global Telescope Network, able to observe objects all across the sky. This 24-hour coverage will enable astronomers to catch every flash and dip in the light from distant galaxies.

"As gas, dust, and even whole stars fall into black holes, they emit tremendous bursts of light; more than the Sun emits in a million years. Globally distributed small telescopic observatories allow us to measure these bursts with unprecedented coverage, and we're poised to learn a lot about these weird objects," commented Gordon Spear, the SSU Observatory Director.

Spear, along with SSU alumnus and outreach group Instructional Technology Consultant Tim Graves, are responsible for the construction, testing, and use of the telescopic observatory. Spear added, "Even better, the telescopes are robotic, so they do all the work for us. It's a great way to hugely increase the data we get."

The SSU telescope will start observing the heavens later this month. Currently, the telescope runs automated scripts which are uploaded to it every night, and plans are to have it run fully robotically by the end of the year.

For further information, contact Professor Lynn Cominsky, lynnc@universe.sonoma.edu, (707) 664-2655.


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