Press Release

UNC receives grants for new telescopes in Chile – remote access will benefit state schools, students

By SpaceRef Editor
August 10, 2004
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CHAPEL HILL — The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has received
two National Science Foundation grants totaling $912,000 to build six
telescopes in Chile that will study the most distant objects in the

The six Panchromatic Robotic Optical Monitoring and Polarimetry Telescopes,
or PROMPT, will be built at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in
the Andes and are designed to study powerful but distant explosions called
gamma-ray bursts.

“The newest telescopes in Chile will be a unique addition to our growing
battery of telescopes – there is no other system in the world like it,” said
Dr. Daniel Reichart, assistant professor of physics and astronomy in
UNC-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences and the lead researcher for
the NSF-funded project.

In April, UNC-Chapel Hill helped dedicate the Southern Astrophysical
Research, or SOAR, telescope, on Cerro Pachon, Chile. The 4.1-meter aperture
telescope is funded by a public-private partnership among UNC-Chapel Hill,
the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the Ministry of
Science of Brazil and Michigan State University. SOAR is expected to begin
routine science operations later this year.

“With PROMPT and our existing telescope in Chile and a soon-to-be dedicated
telescope in South Africa, we will have more guaranteed access to the
Southern Hemisphere sky than any other U.S. institution,” said Reichart.

The new telescopes in Chile also will open fields of study for undergraduate
and high school education statewide, thanks to a consortium of 11 N.C.
colleges and universities and remote operating technology available online
and at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Morehead Observatory.

UNC-Chapel Hill is the lead partner in the PROMPT project, with research
collaborators at Appalachian State University, Elon University, Fayetteville
State University, Guilford Technical Community College, N.C. Agricultural
and Technical State University, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Charlotte,
UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina University, as well as
Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.

Each partner will have about 420 hours of annual observing time among the
PROMPT telescopes. Students and faculty researchers will be able to observe
the Southern Hemisphere skies over Chile using PROMPT through special remote
technology. With PROMPT, students and researchers will simply submit
observing requests using a Web interface. PROMPT will automatically observe
each target, usually within a few days, and then return the collected images
to the students for analysis.

When not chasing gamma-ray bursts, PROMPT also will be used by public school
students statewide for a wide variety of projects. UNC-Chapel Hill’s
Morehead Planetarium and Science Center will have about 2,300 hours per year
for K-12 education and public outreach.

Funded by a $50,000 NASA grant, the Morehead Center is developing a
curriculum for high school science classes that will allow them to submit
observing requests to PROMPT using the same Web interface that the college
student-researchers will use. This curriculum also will satisfy a new
statewide graduation requirement.

“For the state as a whole, the telescopes will be a tremendous resource for
undergraduates and high school students,” said Reichart. “By putting
professional telescopes squarely in the hands of young people, we hope to
inspire the next generation of astronomers and scientists.”

PROMPT is being built in two phases. Construction for the first phase, which
is supported by a
$130,000 pledge from UNC-Chapel Hill’s department of physics and astronomy
and a $100,000 gift from alumnus Leonard Goodman of New York City, is
scheduled to begin this month. Some of the instrumentation for the
telescopes is being built in the Goodman Laboratory for Astronomical
Instrumentation on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, before being shipped to

In September, 15 UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate students will travel to the
PROMPT and SOAR sites in Chile with astronomers Drs. Gerald Cecil and Wayne
Christiansen and graduate student Jane Moran. The group will assemble PROMPT
as part of a semester-long Burch Field Research Seminar study-abroad
program. Students also will conduct research using the SOAR telescope. The
Burch program is funded by a gift from alumnus Lucius E. Burch III.

The first phase is scheduled for completion this year, and the second phase,
which supports a major equipment upgrade, is scheduled for completion in

Once completed, PROMPT will be monitored every night by graduate and
undergraduate students working at UNC-Chapel Hill’s new Henry Cox Remote
Observing Center, located in Morehead Observatory. The center is made
possible by a gift from alumnus Henry Cox of Seminole, Fla.

Astronomers only recently have learned that gamma-ray bursts result when
stars more than 30 times as massive as the sun reach the end of their lives
and collapse to form black holes, said Reichart.

Since gamma rays do not penetrate Earth’s atmosphere, PROMPT will be fed
targets from spacecraft that have been designed to find gamma-ray bursts.
The most powerful satellite will be NASA’s Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission,
which is due to be launched later this year. Swift is expected to discover
one gamma-ray burst every few days and to transmit coordinates to computers
on the ground within tens of seconds of each explosion.

PROMPT then will observe these gamma-ray bursts at visible and infrared
and will do so within mere seconds of spacecraft notification, when they are
still expected to be very bright, even if at great distances, said Reichart.

Since humans cannot react on so rapid a timescale, PROMPT will be entirely
controlled by computers.

Each PROMPT telescope will have a unique capability, said Reichart, such as
observation of violet light, blue light, red light and very red light. One
will observe infrared light, which the human eye cannot see, and another
will measure the polarization, or orientation, of incoming light waves,
which should yield valuable information about the role of magnetic fields in
the creation of gamma-ray bursts.

As much as 10 percent of Swift’s gamma-ray bursts is expected to be more
distant than the most distant object yet identified in the universe, said
Reichart. PROMPT’s ability to observe gamma-ray bursts simultaneously in
multiple colors, and to do so quickly before they fade away, will allow it
to promptly pick out record breakers, he said.

Since light travels at a finite speed, the most distant gamma-ray bursts are
thought to have emitted their light when the universe was only 1 percent of
its current age. “In this way, PROMPT will use gamma-ray bursts to probe the
early universe,” Reichart said.

When a record-breaking gamma-ray burst is identified, the six 0.4-meter
diameter PROMPT telescopes will also relay this data to the much larger SOAR
telescope – only one mountaintop away.

UNC is the founding partner of the SOAR consortium and will lead the
gamma-ray burst research conducted there. SOAR will use PROMPT gamma-ray
bursts as cosmic backlights to probe the early universe in even more
powerful ways.

The PROMPT project is the brainchild of Reichart, who received the
Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Robert J. Trumpler Award for top
doctoral dissertation research in North America in 2003. His research,
which links gamma-ray bursts to the deaths of massive stars, also made
Science Magazine’s “Top 10 Breakthroughs in Science” list in 1999.

SpaceRef staff editor.