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Tuesday, October 5, 2004

UNCP to gain access to six telescopes in the Chilean Andes

UNC Pembroke will participate in a $912,000 National Science Foundation grant that will allow the state’s astronomy students to get a front row seat on the universe.

Dr. Jose D'Arruda and Ken Brandt, UNCP astronomy professors.

Dr. Jose D’Arruda and Ken Brandt, UNCP astronomy professors.

The program will allow North Carolina universities to build six telescopes high in the Chilean Andes. Construction began in August.

The PROMPT (Paramount-based Robotic Optical Monitoring and Polarimetry Telescopes) program is a shared resource with UNC-Chapel Hill as the lead institution. PROMPT will consist of six, 20-inch diameter optical on adjustable mounts. The telescopes will be enclosed in 12-foot clamshell domes at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American site in Chili.

UNCP will be allowed two percent of the time on the telescopes at no cost to the University either for construction or operation. Because PROMPT consists of six telescopes, this is the equivalent of having 12 percent of a single 0.4-meter telescope.

Physics and astronomy professor Dr. Jose D’Arruda is UNCP’s project leader. It is a good day for North Carolina astronomy, he said.

“The grant will help us understand the cause of mysterious and massive gamma ray bursts, which last only seconds and carry so much energy that it would take our sun a lifetime to emit,” Dr. D’Arruda said. “Scientists speculate that the bursts are due to a massive star in another galaxy that is collapsing into a black hole.”

Dr. D’Arruda said identifying the gamma rays helps astronomers locate the source of the emissions, so that photographs may be captured.

“When we detect these gamma rays from the radio telescope, we will then know where to look with the conventional optic telescopes,” he said. “The challenge is that we will have to work immediately, within seconds after we get the alert from the radio telescope, and we will need to quickly turn, aim and take pictures of these targets before the burst ends. That’s why the new telescope will have quick slew ability.”

The benefits of the program will be felt all the way into the public schools. One of the people Dr. D’Arruda will work with on the project is Ken Brandt, director of the Robeson Planetarium and astronomy professor at UNCP.

“This is a real bonus,” Brandt said. “It will be very cool to throw one of the gamma ray images up on the planetarium dome for our students.”

“Gamma rays are part of a whole spectrum of emissions that stars give off before they die,” he said. “This is how stars talk to us - how they are formed, how they are made and how they die.”

Going high into the mountains of South America is a real advantage for viewing deep space, Dr. D’Arruda said.

“The reason that these telescopes are located in the Andes is because the high altitude eliminates atmospheric interference and the weather is almost always good there,” Dr. D’Arruda said.

Because the telescopes are operated robotically via the Internet, UNCP students and scientists will not have to leave home to bring back pictures from deep space.

UNCP was using large telescopes in its astronomy program, but PROMPT allows more time with the big radio telescopes, and UNCP will use all four in pursuit of gamma ray bursts.

Every undergraduate institution in the state with an astronomy program or an interest in astronomy wrote a letter of support to the National Science Foundation, as did Hampden-Sydney College and the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill. UNC-Chapel Hill contributed 30 percent of the total cost of the program.

For more information about UNCP’s astronomy and physics programs, please call (910) 521-6247 or email jose.darruda@uncp.edu.

About gamma-ray bursts

The initial stage of a gamma-ray burst. The core of the star has collapsed deep inside the star. A black hole has formed within the star, and within a few seconds launches a jet of matter away.

The initial stage of a gamma-ray burst. The core of the star has collapsed deep inside the star. A black hole has formed within the star, and within a few seconds launches a jet of matter away.
(Credit: NASA / SkyWorks Digital)


The initial stage of a gamma-ray burst. The core of the star has collapsed deep inside the star. A black hole has formed within the star, and within a few seconds launches a jet of matter away. (Larger image)
(Credit: NASA / SkyWorks Digital)

Wolf-Rayet stars are linked to hypernovae, which in turn are associated with gamma-ray bursts.

Although the exact picture has not been worked out, astronomers think the gamma-ray photons are probably produced inside the star. The explosion originates at the center of these massive stars. While a black hole forms from the collapsing core, this explosion sends a blast wave moving through the star at speeds close to the speed of light. The gamma rays are created when the blast wave collides with stellar material still inside the star. These gamma rays burst out from the star's surface just ahead of the blast wave. Behind the gamma rays, the blast wave pushes the stellar material outward.

Erupting through the star surface, the blast wave of stellar material sweeps through space at nearly the speed of light, colliding with intervening gas and dust, producing additional emission of photons. These emissions are believed responsible for the "afterglow" of progressively less energetic photons, starting with X rays and then visible light and radio waves. (Whether additional gamma rays are also produced in this "afterglow" phase is still not settled, although some evidence indicates they are.) The afterglow phase can last for days or even weeks. Under the collapse model, GRB are detected and the afterglow when the Earth happens to lie along or very near the axis of the blast. In general, there are many more GRBs than are detected simply because we are not favorably aligned to see them.

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