Facility gets update and attracts stellar students
By Fariss Samarrai
It was the early 1960s and U.Va. needed a new astronomical observatory. Charlottesville had grown up all around the nearly 80-year-old McCormick telescope on Mt. Jefferson. And, although it was still a good resource for training students, the venerable 26.25-inch lens telescope was becoming less useful as a research facility, due in part to the increasing interference of city lights. So Larry Fredrick, the department chairman at the time, got into a small plane with engineering professor (and private pilot) Bill Bland, and went looking for a site for a new, high-quality observatory.
The men flew over the Virginia Piedmont looking for a remote and elevated site well beyond the glow of Charlottesville. Frederick spotted a small mountain about 15 miles south of the city. It was named Fan Mountain, and it had potential.
Fredrick paid a visit to the property, liked what he saw and negotiated a price. The site was perfect; the night sky was pitch black and twinkled with stars. The site was close enough to Charlottesville to allow easy access, but well beyond the growing city’s nighttime glow.
Fredrick and a team of astronomers and engineers drew up plans.
By the mid-1960s, they built a good university observatory with two substantial telescopes, one with a 31-inch mirror, the other with a 40-inch mirror. To this day, the 40-inch telescope is the second largest operating optical telescope east of the Mississippi. And instead of using photographic plates to record images similar to those at the McCormick Observatory, these telescopes used photometers, a precursor to the charged coupled device (CCD) imaging sensors found on modern telescopes and digital cameras. These photometers were revolutionary, recording 50 percent of the light received from stars rather than the mere 1 percent or so possible from photographic plates.
But as the years went by, bigger, more elaborate telescopes were built at other sites across the nation and worldwide.
Fan Mountain needed a transformation. It came in recent years with the introduction of first-rate new instruments designed and built by U.Va. astronomers and students.
Steve Majewski, a leading Milky Way researcher, worked with professor emeritus Philip Ianna, research scientist Kiriaki Xiluri and technicians Jim Barr and Charles Lam, to add a modern CCD-based camera to the 40-inch telescope, making it a highly capable instrument for imaging visible wavelengths. With graduate student Jeffrey Crane, they also added a fiber-optic fed spectrograph, an instrument that breaks white light into its component colors, allowing astronomers to measure wavelengths and thereby determine the motions and chemical compositions of stars.
As Majewski and his colleagues transformed the larger telescope, the department hired Mike Skrutskie, a leading instrument designer and astronomer from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He brought with him an entire instrument design lab and a strong desire to teach graduate and undergraduate students how to create infrared cameras and spectrographs. Skrutskie has since worked with research scientist John Wilson and graduate students Chan Park and Sri Kanneganti to design, build and install an infrared camera on the 31-inch telescope.
This instrument allows astronomers to view stars in the infrared, making distant stars that are optically invisible become “visible.” Scientists can peer through cosmic dust, greatly expanding the capabilities of traditional observatories.
The new instruments are being used to learn more about how stars form and galaxies develop, to survey the skies in a quest to identify stars that may include planetary solar systems and to chart the universe by measuring stellar distances.
“By adding this equipment and enhancing the research capabilities of the observatory, we are also making observing time more readily available and providing an almost limitless set of science opportunities,” Skrutskie said.
All of this is making the department stronger and more attractive to first-rate graduate students.
Majewski describes the Fan Mountain transformation as “a renaissance” for astronomical detection work at U.Va. “Students can use this high-quality equipment, learn, make mistakes and prepare for careers where they will use the best telescopes in the world,” he said. “We are fortunate to have a quality facility so close and accessible to the University.”
|Fan Mountain Open House April 8
|Each April and October, a special public night is held at the Fan Mountain Observatory. The next one is April 8. If you hurry, free tickets (required for entrance) are still available. Send a self-addressed stamped envelope, along with the number of tickets requested (up to 6), to Fan Mountain Public Night, P.O. Box 3818, Charlottesville, VA 22903-0818. (A self-addressed stamped envelope MUST be enclosed.)