UMass Lowell’s Window to the Universe

New Astronomical Observatory Installed on Top of Olney Hall

The UMass Lowell Astronomical Observatory is being readied to allow students to explore the skies above Lowell.

The UMass Lowell Astronomical Observatory is being readied to allow students to explore the skies above Lowell.

04/20/2012
By Edwin L. Aguirre

Students will be able to study the Moon, planets, stars, galaxies, nebulae and other deep-sky objects using a full robotic, research-grade optical telescope beginning this fall. 

The UMass Lowell Astronomical Observatory features a 10-inch Meade LX200GPS Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope housed inside a compact fiberglass dome and equipped with a highly sensitive SBIG ST-7XMED astronomical CCD camera.

“The camera is capable of making precise measurements of the stars’ brightness,” says Silas Laycock, Ph.D., a lecturer in the Physics and Applied Physics Department. “An integrated filter wheel will enable students to measure the colors and surface temperatures of stars. The detector’s very low read noise will allow students to obtain long-duration exposures to record faint targets.”

Students can also use the observatory’s SBIG spectrograph to disperse light from astronomical objects with a diffraction grating to study the overall energy distribution and absorption/emission lines of elements and molecules present in the objects. 

“A star’s spectrum reveals its surface temperature, chemical composition, magnetic field strength, surface gravity, gas density and motion through space by virtue of Doppler shifts in its spectral lines,” explains Laycock.

“Interestingly, we can determine a binary star’s radial velocity toward and away from Earth and, by observing it over many nights, determine the orbit of its companion star — a classic foundation of astrophysics,” he says. “Perhaps more remarkably, we can measure the redshifts of distant galaxies, reproducing Hubble’s landmark discovery that led to the Big Bang theory.”

A Generous Gift to the University

The observatory is made possible through the generosity of UMass Lowell alumnus David Riccio ’05, who is a professional technician in the Physics and Applied Physics Department. Riccio, who has a life-long interest in astronomy, donated the telescope, dome, camera, spectrograph, filter set and associated hardware and software to the University last year. The gift is worth a total of about $23,000. The Physics Department spent about $10,000 for miscellaneous electronics and the observatory’s installation on the roof of Olney.

“I wanted to provide our students with hands-on observing experience using the same type of equipment and technologies employed at today’s professional observatories,” Riccio says.

“The telescope is being fine-tuned right now to make it robust, fail-safe and student-ready for next semester” he says. “The goal is for students to be able to control the telescope from anywhere, as long as there is Internet access.”

Observing the Solar System and Beyond

Students will use the observatory to pursue capstone and graduate projects in close collaboration with the physics faculty. Faculty members will also use images, spectra and other data collected with the telescope to enhance their lectures.

Laycock plans to use the telescope to teach physics students enrolled in stellar astrophysics and astronomy, galactic astronomy and cosmology and exploring the universe, the last a general elective subject for non-physics majors.

“Undergraduates will rediscover for themselves landmark discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics,” he says. “Compelling objects that students can study include the Sun, Moon, the planets and their moons, asteroids, variable stars, pulsating stars, eclipsing binary stars, supernovae, star clusters, nebulae and galaxies as well as exoplanets, which are planets orbiting other stars.”

Observing at Radio Wavelengths

Sharing the roof of Olney Hall is the UMass Lowell Radio Telescope, which was designed and built by MIT’s Haystack Observatory as a prototype for its long-running Small Radio Telescope project. It consists of a 2.3-meter-diameter steerable dish antenna that feeds signal to a sensitive receiver/amplifier. The signal is analyzed with digital processing software.

The radio telescope has a frequency range of 1.37 to 1.80 gigahertz, which is ideal for studying the Sun and exploring the Milky Way’s structure and dynamics as well as for detecting exotic astronomical radio sources such as supernova remnants, pulsars and black holes like Cygnus X-1.

“A radio telescope is an excellent teaching tool because it involves the combined technologies of microwave engineering and digital computing,” says Laycock. “However, our radio telescope needs substantial renovation.” 

For more information, go to www.uml.edu/Research/labs/Observatory. To see photos of the observatory’s construction, visit the UML Photo Gallery.