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Researchers David DeMuth (right) of the University of Minnesota, Crookston and Timothy Young of the University of North Dakota install the Crookston-UND Search Telescope (CRUST) in Crookston.
They're in the dark - and they love it
Twin telescopes at UMC and the University of North Dakota are opening a new window on the Universe
By Deane Morrison
Dec. 22, 2006
From the remote corners of Minnesota and North Dakota, researchers at the University of Minnesota, Crookston and the University of North Dakota are probing the cosmos for new planets being born and old stars dying in silent but spectacular explosions. These are just some of the celestial wonders that will soon be seen through the combined power of two synchronized telescopes sitting 40 miles apart, one each at UMC and UND. Project leaders David DeMuth of UMC and Timothy Young of UND, both associate professors of physics, hope to connect the robotic, Internet-linked telescopes by fiber-optic cables and have the system up and running by spring. The move will combine the power of the two telescopes, increasing their light-gathering abilities so they can observe fainter objects and reduce uncertainty in their data. Already, says DeMuth, the public is taking an interest in the new telescope at UMC. Dubbed CRUST (Crookston-UND Search Telescope), it has a 16-inch aperture and is housed in a brand new "shed" about a mile from campus in the 85-acre Red River Valley Natural History Area, part of the University's Northwest Research and Outreach Center. "I've gotten a lot of spark out of local people," says DeMuth. "We've presented at the Rotary Service Club, and it's exciting to see a town of 8,000 farmers, bankers, storekeepers, a dentist and, of course, an optometrist, getting interested." The UND counterpart to CRUST is a 10-inch telescope called TOAST (Transient Object Automated Search Telescope). Its home is in Emerado, N.D., about 10 miles west of the UND campus in Grand Forks.
"North Dakota and Minnesota are a natural resource," says Young. "We're in the dark, and we love it."The CRUST-TOAST project has attracted students like flies to jam. Between designing the shed's sliding roof, writing software to coordinate observational data and improving the cameras that keep the telescopes tracking objects as they move across the sky, both undergraduate and graduate students have had plenty to do. Into the depths of space The researchers are especially eager to enlist CRUST and TOAST in two astronomical quests. The first is the search for planets that orbit stars other than the sun. Researchers will record the light output of a star and look for a dip in its brightness. Small dips of around two percent may signal that a planet is crossing in front of the star along our line of sight, just as Venus famously crossed the face of the sun in 2005. Astrophysicists want to learn as much as they can about extrasolar planets because they may reveal details of how our solar system, and even life itself, arose, says DeMuth. Collaborating in this work are astrophysicists from NASA Ames Research Center in California. A perhaps even more elusive quarry is sudden flares of gamma-ray radiation, a form of light even more powerful and deadly than X-rays. Known as gamma-ray bursts, these outpourings of energy last anywhere from a few milliseconds to several minutes and can come at any time from any direction. They come from distant galaxies and represent the death cries of stars collapsing into black holes. Following a gamma ray burst comes an afterglow of visible light, which the CRUST-TOAST researchers hope to study. Because gamma-ray bursts are brief and erupt randomly, NASA has dedicated a satellite, called SWIFT, to detecting them and quickly relaying their location to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Goddard scientists then send an alert to ground-based telescopes. "We'll hook up into the gamma-ray burst network that taps into data from SWIFT," explains Young. "After a couple of hours, we'll get a visible afterglow." "If we can get some of these afterglows, we can contribute to understanding the Universe and its evolution, where we came from and where we're going," adds De Muth. Other projects slated for the telescopes are studies of gigantic stellar explosions called supernovae and observations of comets, minor planets such as the large round asteroid Ceres, and near-Earth asteroids. The teams hopes not only to study such objects but to discover some as well. The expanding Universe of astronomy None of this would be possible from a big-city environment like the Twin Cities. The march of civilization, with its army of lights, has stolen the night sky and its wonders from most of us. But in the northwest corner of Minnesota and the northeast corner of North Dakota, the land is flat and skies are dark enough for small-scale astronomy. "North Dakota and Minnesota are a natural resource," says Young. "We're in the dark, and we love it." They love it so much, they hope to expand the network. "A third telescope in a very remote site is the goal for the next 10 years," says DeMuth. Candidates include the University-operated Soudan Underground Laboratory in Soudan, Minn., and sites near the northern Minnesota city of Bemidji or the Peace Gardens in North Dakota. "We're developing a good collaboration with and combining resources from NASA, the National Science Foundation and other sources," says Young. "Maybe we'll get other universities involved to build a bigger grid." Both DeMuth and Young would like to become part of a large cluster of telescopes working together. They envision researchers sending lists of objects they want to study to a central computer, which would then decide which telescopes in the grid should observe which objects. The computer would consider factors such as which sites were reporting clear skies, how long an object would be visible from each location and each telescope's resolving power. For Dan Svedarsky, director of the Red River Valley Natural History Area, the project fits in well with the other scientific uses of the area, including a stations to monitor lightning and insect populations. Already used by everyone from ecology students to cross-country skiers, the area will probably become the venue for star parties (where people gather to observe and discuss the night sky). "I just like to see people appreciating our Earth and solar system," says Svedarsky. "We've been restoring prairie at the natural history area, and the telescope is a nice complement." "Now," says DeMuth,"it's not just a window to a local prairie, but a window to the Universe."