BYU leads research in Utah desert


    By Jens Dana

    The stars have finally aligned for BYU astronomers as they prepare to transport a robotic telescope to the Utah desert for long-term cosmic investigation.

    Joseph Moody, BYU astronomy professor, said he and his students have worked on the Remote Observatory for Variable Object Research telescope for six years. ROVER is a computer-controlled telescope that will monitor heavenly objects such as black holes, quasars and supernovas, he said.

    ?This is a first step toward a major decade-long investigation into how the material around black holes change its brightness,? Moody said. ?We don?t necessarily understand the physical mechanisms, or exactly why black hole environments brighten up. We know they do, but we want to understand why.?

    Brett Little, a sophomore and former ROVER project member, said he became interested in the ROVER project because of the potential knowledge gained through this research.

    ?We will be studying gamma ray bursters, or unimaginably massive explosions that take place all over our universe,? Little said. ?Studying these objects will help us gain a better understanding on how our universe was created.?

    Although the project is considered low budget, ROVER is not low-quality workmanship. Wes Lifferth, a 25-year veteran machinist for the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said he designed the shed that will store the telescope to maximize platform stability and horizon visibility.

    ?Sometimes you?ll see an amateur observatory roof that will just slide off on a track, but the roof will hit the telescope.? Lifferth said. ?We didn?t go that way, we went with a roof that will lift up and over.?

    The team disassembled the telescope Wednesday and within the next week, the telescope will be taken out to the desert near Delta where it will be controlled remotely via the Internet, he said.

    Moody said Utah is an ideal place to study astronomy with its comparatively low pollution rates and dark nights. However, he said aside from an observatory at West Mountain, there is no real concentrated effort to research astronomy in Utah or Nevada ? two ideal states for observatories.

    ?It just baffles me, but for some reason we have no large telescopes in these two states,? Moody said. ?There?s been no concerted effort to establish a really good astronomical observatory in Utah.?

    Budget is one reason for the lack of interest in establishing observatories, which makes the ROVER project important because it demonstrates how other universities can build low-budget robotic telescopes, Moody said. Eventually, small observatories like ROVER will be the norm in watching the sky, and BYU will lead the charge, he said.

    ?This is just the first step we?re taking of many to be the world leader at monitoring how things in the sky change using small telescopes,? he said. ?We?re serious about this. We want to be the best.?

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