First Light for U. Observatory

The galactic center shines like firelight through gaps in thick smoke. The “smoke” is a dust lane that stretches nearly the length of the galaxy, a lane of dark streaks and filaments, clots and knots and bundles. A serene mist surrounds the central bulge and silhouettes the long lane, showing the galaxy as a fat disk against the blackness of space. Stars much closer are bright white dots all around it, while among them several tiny smudges represent far more distant galaxies. NGC 891 is a spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way, seen edge-on from a distance of 23.9 million light-years.

[First light photo by Willard L. Eccles Observatory, showing spiral galaxy NGC 891]

The view was the first image — in astronomer-talk, “first light” — captured by the University of Utah’s Willard L. Eccles Observatory. Built in the past few months high on Frisco Peak, Beaver County, the $860,000 observatory sports a 32-inch reflector telescope.

Besides offering opportunities for scientific discovery, the observatory is the centerpiece of the university’s new emphasis on astronomy. The recently-renamed Department of Physics and Astronomy has been hiring faculty and students are able to sign up for a minor in astronomy; eventually an astronomy major is to become available.

Wednesday night, hundreds of well-wishers celebrated the launch of the observatory during a short series of lectures and a buffet in the James Fletcher Building Rotunda, U. of U. campus. Photos shown, taken in the first two nights of the observatory’s work, included NGC891; the relatively nearby galaxy named M-81, which is nearly flat to Earth’s viewpoint; the mysterious and beautiful Horsehead Nebula; the Crab Nebula; the Ring Nebula; the Orion Nebula; wispy tendrils of the Veil Nebula, and the gigantic Andromeda Galaxy.

“This is a great day for the Department of Physics and Astronomy,” said Prof. Pierre Sololsky, dean of the U. College of Science.

[Prof. Pierre Sokolsky talks about the new observatory Wednesday night. Photo by Cory Bauman]

He quickly explained how the new observatory was tied to a dark time in the department in 2003, when several faculty members said they were leaving for one reason or another. An option was to improve the department by turning more to astronomy. Since then the department has gained more than the number it lost, attracted to such ambitious projects as working with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and studies that can be carried out by the new telescope. It’s a “great opportunity” to build programs, he said.

“I really think this is a seed that will grow into a much, much bigger tree.”

Prof. David Kieda, chairman of the department, said sections of southern Utah are among the few places in the United States that are free of light pollution. With the observatory, “We have research experience for undergraduates” and can “participate in world-class astronomy.”

R. Wayne Springer, associate professor, described driving around southern Utah with two graduate students in 2007, checking how much the North Star twinkled at different sites. Twinkling is a sign of a turbulent atmosphere, not conducive to astronomy. “The seeing conditions were excellent on Frisco Peak in spite of the wind,” he said.

The site, near Milford at an elevation of 9,600 feet, had the advantage of something like a road and electrical power. The road was improved and a power line that supplied a nearby microwave tower was extended to the observatory. Springer said $3,800 worth of shielding was installed around control system wires to protect them from microwave interference.

Flatbed trucks hauled equipment up the steep, rocky road. Flat tires were a frequent result of driving the difficult route. “The concrete was transported up in buckets,” he said. Construction crews working beside a 4,500-foot drop assembled the observatory atop steel struts. A concrete pier helps stabilize the telescope.

[Willard L. Eccles Observatory. Photo by Harold Simpson]

“The control room now is painted in the same dreary olive-drab as the dome,” Springer said. Why? “We had to,” he said. “Visual impact.”

The site was provided by the federal Bureau of Land Management. According to the university, the Willard L. Eccles Foundation donated $600,000 for the project, the Ezekiel R. and Edna W. Dumke Foundation provided $160,000, and the university funded $40,000, with “another $60,000 yet to be raised.” Springer is applying for a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant so that the “Frisco Peak telescope can be operate by remote control from [the Salt Lake City] campus, 250 miles away,” adds a U. release.

Remote control would be a plus because “it’s pretty difficult to get up there,” Springer told the gathering. The site is protected by surveillance cameras, but he would like to see it host astronomers in person, rather than rely only on remote control.

He added, “I want to get up there all year round.”

To view more of the observatory’s earliest photos, CLICK HERE.

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