Sep 22, 2004
Florida Tech getting own view of stars
BY CHRIS KRIDLER
MELBOURNE -- Florida Tech will soon have an eye to aim at the sky.
The university recently got a grant of $347,000 from the National
Science Foundation that, combined with money from the school, will
add up to $496,000 to buy a 24-inch-diameter telescope.
The silvery dome for the telescope is already in place atop the new
F.W. Olin Physical Sciences Building, which weathered Hurricane
Frances well, spokeswoman Karen Rhine said. It is expected to hold
its first classes in January. The telescope should arrive within a
"The main reason for wanting to do this is we have one of the largest
programs in astronomy in the world, and it's time we had one of the
best campus observatories in the world to go with it," said Terry
Oswalt, associate dean for research and professor of physics and
space sciences. "Our students deserve that."
Students will be able to sit in a classroom adjoining the observatory
dome and see on a television screen what the telescope is seeing.
Such high-tech observing is typical these days.
"If you see an astronomer looking through the eyepiece of a
telescope, it means a piece of equipment has failed," Oswalt said.
The telescope will use a camera that costs about $20,000 and is 50
times more sensitive than the human eye, he said. About a hundred
astronomy majors will use it each year, along with high school
students and teachers.
A public lecture series will allow visitors to have a peek, too,
professor and astronomer Matt Wood said, though the telescope won't
have regular visiting hours the way Brevard Community College's does.
In addition, there are 15 pads on the observation deck to hold mostly
Skies are plenty dark enough for Florida Tech's telescopes, Oswalt
said, thanks to the ocean to the east and little developed land to
"We're nothing but a little sliver of light pollution on the coast,"
As the lead member of the Southeastern Association for Research in
Astronomy, the university also uses a telescope at Kitt Peak near
Tucson, Ariz., because it's across the country. It can be programmed
through the Internet.
These "two eyes," Oswalt said, give observers a kind of depth
perception that enhances measurements of asteroids, comets and moons.
Through international cooperation, students can make 24-hour
"You always want to have someone on the night side of the planet,"
Wood said. Otherwise, watching in one spot is like listening to music
and hearing one of every three seconds.
"If you've got the whole planet, then you get the whole song," he
With the new telescope, students can do time series photometry, Wood
said. They measure the brightness of stars every 10 seconds to
determine the frequencies at which they oscillate. This information
allows them to infer the stars' structure.
"Essentially, we're doing seismology of the stars," Wood said.
The new telescope will sit on a cross-beam atop two massive concrete
piers, which will isolate it from vibrations.
Although it will be state-of-the-art, it still isn't big enough to
help Oswalt study the faint objects in which he's most interested.
Instead, he requests time on much larger telescopes.
"I'm trying to get a reasonably accurate measure of the age of the
galaxy using the fossils called white dwarf stars," he said. "Those
are the leftover remnants of all the previous generations of stars
the galaxy has ever produced."
Wood also studies white dwarfs, though in rare binary systems called
cataclysmic variables. In such systems, a normal star orbits a white
dwarf, which pulls material out of the orbiting star, creating an
Earth and the rest of the solar system formed out of an accretion
disk around our sun. Studies of cataclysmic variables might be able
to explain how such a process works.
"We find accretion disks at all scales in astrophysics," he said.
Contact Kridler at 242-3633 or ckridler@...
Stellar donations: Florida Tech's astronomy program is seeking
monetary donations for gear for the new F.W. Olin Physical Sciences
Building and other needs. For information, call Elizabeth Taylor,the
director of corporate and foundation relations, at 674-6155.
Cosmic construction: F.W. Olin Physical Sciences Building webcam:
www.it.fit.edu/broadcast/webcams/pscam/index.cfm Florida Tech
astronomy group: www.astro.fit.edu/astro.html