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Students Reap Benefits of Pomona's Telescope in New Mexico

At a time when most students are going to sleep, a telescope at the top of Mount Joy, a 7,200-foot peak in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains, is whirring into action.

The “Seeing in the Dark Internet Telescope,” known as SIDINT, is controlled entirely by scripts, a series of automated commands, so that observers such as astronomy student Alex Hagen HM ’10 can rest while nighttime observations are made. It is the Pomona College Department of Astronomy’s most recent acquisition, raising to four the number of telescopes available to 5-C students. Pomona already led the nation’s liberal arts colleges in its astronomical facilities; now astronomy students at all 5Cs have yet another way to explore the heavens.

SIDINT was made possible by the Bisques, four brothers based in Colorado who developed a popular desktop planetarium program in the 1980s and later combined it with image-processing software that was directly connected to the telescope to allow for completely automated remote observing. The telescope was funded by a National Science Foundation grant to science writer Timothy Ferris as an extension of his educational show “Seeing in the Dark,” which aired on PBS in 2007 and focused on amateur astronomy. SIDINT was designed to be operated completely over the internet, so that anyone could submit a request for an object to be observed and receive an image via e-mail.

After the grant expired, Pomona astronomy professor Bryan Penprase acquired funding from NASA to lease the telescope for about a year. He hopes to get other institutions, such as Swarthmore and Amherst Colleges, involved in the coming months.

In 5C students’ hands, SIDINT will be used for a combination of student projects and a NASA-funded research project studying near-earth asteroids. The project that Hagen is currently working on involves gathering light curves--graphs of light intensity versus time--for hundreds of newly discovered asteroids. He will combine that information with data taken by NASA’s space-based Spitzer Space Telescope, which observes the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. He is part of a collaboration with astronomers from Europe as well as the University of Arizona and Harvard University. Together, they have been granted 500 hours of observation time with Spitzer

According to Hagen, the opportunity to use a world-class instrument is amazing—space-based data are hard to get, he says, since observation time is in such high demand. Other students at the 5Cs have worked with major telescopes including the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, and data from the Far Ultraviolet Explorer satellite.

Smaller telescopes like SIDINT are special for two reasons: They are available at all times for hands-on learning by introductory astronomy students and the types of projects done with them are often very creative.

“A lot of these little telescopes are discounted,” Hagen said, “but we come up with a lot of research ideas that the big telescopes can’t do but we can.”

Students can quickly learn to take advantage of the unlimited observation time at their disposal—a luxury as valuable in its own way as the higher quality of world-class telescopes.

Students from the Claremont Colleges can also use three other telescopes. There are two at Brackett Observatory, whose silver domes are visible from the Wash, and a third at Table Mountain Observatory, about an hour away in the mountains near the town of Wrightwood, Calif. The latter was built over the span of about 20 years with three different NSF grants and additional funding from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and, like SIDINT, IS almost entirely supported by outside funding. Table Mountain can also be operated remotely from campus, but—with a one-meter mirror—is much larger. However, it is also notoriously prone to glitches, and Penprase says that if he had the chance to go back in time, he would have started with SIDINT, though some professors view Table Mountain, which is located at an elevation of 7,500 feet, as an invaluable educational opportunity.

Now that SIDINT has been added to Pomona’s toolbox, students don’t have to worry about the weather. Even if it is cloudy in California, skies are likely to be clear over the New Mexico mountaintop where SIDINT is located. “My favorite part of observing is that you’re seeing images that nobody else has seen before,” Hagen says. “Every time you take something it’s unique.”

Several factors distinguish Pomona’s facilities from those at other universities, according to Philip Choi, a Pomona astronomy professor. First is their location.

“There are a handful of other small schools that will probably have a 16- or 24-inch telescope,” says Choi, “but the thing that those schools don’t have is the fact that our one-meter is located at the top of a mountain. They don’t have the seeing that we do.” Because Table Mountain can be remotely controlled, it does not have to be on campus, which is at sea level.

Secondly, having a telescope like Table Mountain gives students the opportunity to develop instrumentation. For example, Brandon Horn HM ’09, Daniel Beeler PO ’09, Alex Rudy PO ’11, and Zev Gurman PO ’11 have been working on a one-of-a-kind adaptive optics system for Table Mountain, which will improve images by adding instruments to the telescope that are sensitive to the quality of the observations. This is something that is usually done for the largest-scale telescopes in the world, but these four students are doing it at a fraction of the budget.

“No other undergraduate or even university institution that I’m aware of really has students involved in the development of instrumentation for their telescopes,” said Choi, even though adaptive optics is “an essential technology for all future telescopes.”

The Table Mountain telescope provides valuable experience for students interested in joining governmental agencies and universities that offer postgraduate degrees.

And the new telescope in New Mexico, in addition to sharing the benefit of dark skies and remote observation with Table Mountain, will also give students the chance to learn about scientific collaboration.

“The potential for collaboration is the most exciting part of this telescope. Because we’re planning on having this be a shared instrument, we’re hoping to coordinate with other small colleges across the country,” said Choi.

Choi said that students will be able to develop more ambitious observing programs because teams at other colleges will also be gathering data. After sharing the data, the teams will analyze it independently to check for systematic errors. Therefore, students are exposed to both the human and scientific aspects of research.

Penprase said he hopes that Pomona “can give students the highest quality astronomy experiences of any college in the country,” and the department offers a number of opportunities for students to take advantage of these instruments.

The astronomy department also hosts occasional planetarium shows and star parties, which are open to the public. Star parties usually take place when something exciting is happening in the sky. The Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers group, which has used Brackett Observatory for occasional public solar star parties, meets once a month at Harvey Mudd’s Beckmann Hall and also hosts star parties, most of which are off campus.

This article was originally published in the March 6, 2009, edition of The Student Life