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UM Begins Fundraising for Powerful Telescope to Locate 'Exoplanets'

Development of a new partnership between The University of Montana Department of Physics and Astronomy, the California Institute of Technology and Pennsylvania State University will place UM on the cutting edge of the search for new planets and help address the age-old question, “Are we alone?”

UM is working with the astronomy departments of Caltech and Penn State to build a new array of telescopes called MINERVA, which all three universities will use to search for planets orbiting nearby stars. The ultimate goal, according to UM Assistant Professor of Astrophysics Nate McCrady, is to locate earthlike, rocky planets capable of supporting liquid water, the most basic building block of life as we know it.

The search for exoplanets – planets that orbit stars outside our own solar system – has gained speed in the past few years, most notably through the findings of NASA’s Kepler Mission. Kepler, a powerful, orbiting telescope, points at a single patch of sky with stars that are hundreds to thousands of light-years away. By detecting dips in light signifying the “transit” of a planet passing in front of a star, Kepler has discovered about 2,200 planet-candidates since 2010.

The MINERVA array will bring the search for new planets much closer to home.

“We want to find rocky planets around nearby stars,” McCrady said. “Kepler is looking farther away.”

Nearby, in this case, means stars that are tens of light-years away rather than thousands. Some are visible from Earth with the naked eye. The stars also need to be in the right stage of development to have orbiting planets ­– past their volatile early millennia, but not so old they’re ready to explode. Ideally, a star should be putting out a stable amount of light and heat, like our own sun.

By partnering with other universities, UM has the capability to purchase one of four telescopes that, when used in conjunction with the others, will allow astronomers to search the skies with extreme power and precision. Looking to the stars with the combined light collected by all four telescopes will bring the cost of this powerful array down from the $6 million ballpark to about $1 million. UM’s stake would be about $250,000 for one telescope and the imaging camera within it.

Penn State already has purchased their telescope, which will be mounted for testing at Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., in the coming weeks. Caltech currently is raising funds to purchase possibly two of their own, and UM has started its fundraising efforts.

After the initial investment for the telescope, the project has the potential to generate much more funding for research at UM.

“It really elevates UM’s profile and makes us very competitive for NASA and National Science Foundation funding,” said McCrady.

Though the Department of Physics and Astronomy is looking into grants to purchase the telescope, they have started working with the UM Foundation and primarily are looking for private funding to support this important step forward in the research capabilities of the University. Once the telescope is purchased, funding for operation will be easier to secure through research grants.

Currently, the most powerful telescopes in the world are located in remote locations far from Missoula. Researchers can spend thousands of dollars booking observation time and traveling to a large observatory, only to be thwarted by a cloudy day.

MINERVA eventually will be housed at the Palomar Observatory in southern California. This prime location will allow UM researchers and students about 300 clear viewing nights per year, and the array and individual telescope can be operated remotely from McCrady’s astronomy lab in the Clapp Building at UM.

MINERVA will allow researchers and students to look at potential planet-hosting stars near our solar system and, like Kepler, can detect transits of planets. But it also will use radial velocimetry to detect the reflex motion – the slight wobble of a star as it is pulled by a planet at the apex of its orbit. This means MINERVA will not only identify candidate-planets like Kepler, but confirm they are exoplanets with further analysis.

This information can help scientists determine the size, mass and ultimately the density of these exoplanets. A small, dense planet will likely be rocky, as opposed to a gas giant such as Jupiter. If it’s not too close or far from the star, it could contain liquid water and possibly life. Researchers won’t be able to view these newfound planets with MINERVA, but it is important to detect their location because viewing capabilities will be possible soon.

“The next generation of telescopes can look at planets located around nearby stars,” McCrady said. “We need to tell them where they should be looking.”

The idea for MINERVA was born from collaboration between McCrady, John Johnson of Caltech and Jason Wright of Penn State, who attended the University of California, Berkeley, together during their doctoral studies. Aside from the exciting new academic opportunities for students at all three universities, MINERVA will allow students to collaborate on research between campuses.

“Our engagement in the MINERVA project will provide UM undergraduate students exposure to very high-level astronomy science and will allow them to interact and learn from graduate students and faculty members from some of the very best programs in the world,” UM Provost Perry Brown said. “It is an extraordinary opportunity that will open doors to future research projects and further educational and employment opportunities for our students.  It will enhance UM’s educational excellence in physics and astronomy.”

The UM Department of Physics and Astronomy will retain the Blue Mountain Observatory, a telescope located at the top of Blue Mountain south of Missoula, but MINERVA will give UM students access to research-grade, state-of-the-art equipment.

“We’re in a position to be on the cutting edge,” McCrady said. “No one’s doing exactly what we’re doing with this.”

For more information call McCrady at 406-243-2041 or email nate.mccrady@umontana.edu. You can learn more about MINERVA or donate funds to purchase the telescope at http://www.physics.umt.edu/minerva