GRAND JUNCTION – If a satellite, an asteroid or an old, dead rocket hurtles toward Earth, a telescope installed on Purdy Mesa is ready to help detect it and alert officials from around the world.
Installers used a crane to carefully hoist the 200-pound high-powered equipment into its new home at the Grand Mesa Observatory, where it will provide a gateway to the cosmos, emerging at night from under its dome to view the heavens.
The newest site joining the U.S. Air Force’s Falcon telescope network is located under the dark skies just east of Whitewater, away from light pollution and in an ideal location for researchers, students and those monitoring space to gain a clear view of what’s out there.
The Falcon network has three main goals – to track and identify human-made satellites, to help view and collect information about astronomical objects and to help provide outreach and educational opportunities to students from kindergarten to university-level physics majors.
U.S. Air Force Academy physics professor Francis Chun oversaw the installation of the 20-inch Oficina Stellare telescope inside the dome at the observatory in late August, as he has with the other telescopes already installed around the world.
The telescope is the 10th to be installed in the network, Chun said. Five others are already installed in Colorado: La Junta, Sterling, Durango, Woodland Park and Yoder. Penn State hosts the remaining Falcon telescope located in the U.S. There are two telescopes located in Australia and one in Chile, and Chun said organizers are planning on additional locations in Germany and South Africa. The first location was installed in 2013 at Otero Junior College.
Having a network of telescopes, located on various continents in different hemispheres, helps those who are watching objects in space gain multiple perspectives and gather more information about them, Chun said. Experts refer to this as “multi-messenger observation,” and the data collected can help students and researchers better understand the physics behind objects in space.
Having multiple locations in the network also guards against weather issues preventing any of the telescopes from viewing the night sky. Though it might be rainy in Pennsylvania, chances are that Colorado might have clear conditions on a particular night.
The raw data collected by the telescopes on the Falcon network is intended for use by all the partners in the network, and while the telescopes aren’t for public use, the information they gather will be used by the public as well as the Air Force.
In the arrangement, the Air Force provides about $155,000 in equipment and the educational partners provide the building and infrastructure to house and protect the telescope and its accessories. The partners in this venture are Colorado Mesa University and the Grand Mesa Observatory, which celebrated its anniversary this summer.
Observatory Director Terry Hancock said he’s agreed to help with any maintenance issues or troubleshooting with the telescope, but the Falcon network will run independently of the observatory’s telescopes he manages. The installation of the telescope is about seven years in the making, as CMU physics faculty searched for the best site and found the observatory located at 6,100 feet in elevation to be a prime location away from city lights. CMU trustees agreed to pay $28,000 for the Falcon telescope’s observatory and dome and will pay $2,400 per year to rent the area from observatory founders John and Vicki Mansur.
Though one of the network’s purposes is to track objects traveling close to Earth, the telescope installed at the observatory is strong enough to see far past Earth’s orbit.
“It’s powerful enough that you can detect things happening in other galaxies,” Chun said.
Anyone in the network can submit requests for certain objects to be captured through the telescopes situated around the world. That means if a CMU physics student wants to access data from a location only visible from the Southern Hemisphere at a particular time, the telescopes in Australia could be used for that purpose. Then the data is transmitted directly to them, without requiring any travel.
The Air Force tracks roughly 22,000 objects in space, some only measuring 10 centimeters, Chun said. Some of those objects are spent satellites, old rocket bodies discarded from space missions, or other junk that could fall to Earth eventually. These could also present a hazard to aviators, and so the government keeps tabs on them.
The Air Force also tracks about 1,200 working, active satellites, about half of which are domestic. The information collected through the Falcon network telescopes can help viewers detect the size, shape, materials and behavior of satellites, “and from that, we can infer the functionalities and capabilities of those satellites,” Chun said.
Just last year, students used information gathered from the telescope in Chile to study two neutron stars that merged, Chun said. The network was able to gather data that measured the gravity wave signals from this event, for students to use for research.
Students can search for planets outside the Earth’s solar system using the network of telescopes, study stars and supernovae, and even follow asteroids circling the Earth, among other projects.
In the coming months, local students and their teachers will be able to participate in the Air Force’s First Light Project, which encourages classes to pitch proposals on what they think the newly installed telescope should see first and how they would use the information gathered.
The kickoff encourages students to become involved in hands-on STEM research, as they develop research ideas based on what can be viewed in the night sky from the Purdy Mesa location. The project requires students to provide a scientific proposal including the celestial coordinates of the objects and reasons they think their idea should be chosen.