New telescope allows for deeper research

Todd Kleiboer
The new telescope is 700 millimeters, four times more powerful than the one below it. It can also be operated remotely.

By Todd Kleiboer | Co-Editor

A new, more powerful telescope was installed over the summer at the A&M-Commerce observatory, a project that had been years in the making for the astronomy department that will further student and faculty research.

“Dr. [Matt] Wood, myself, and Dr. [Kurtis] Williams wrote a NSF [National Science Foundation] grant asking for money for a telescope, and they gave us the money,” Dr. Kent Montgomery, interim department head for Physics and Astronomy and co-principal investigator, said. “That was last year, and so we spent this year installing and putting it together.”

Since the construction of the observatory in 2008, the professors have filed a total of five NSF grants, the earliest ones having less success than the later ones because Montgomery had been the only astronomer at the university. This particular grant totaled $330,000.

“I had tried a grant way back in 2010, and it wasn’t successful,” Montgomery said. “Then we got two more [astronomers]. We got Dr. Wood and Dr. Williams, and we thought we had a better chance now because I’m not the lone astronomer.”

Wood, current Vice Provost for Research and former department head, was the principal investigator (PI) while Montgomery and Williams were the co-PIs. Since Wood has taken his new position as vice provost, Montgomery has taken over the project.

This new telescope is four times more powerful than the observatory’s best mechanical one, and it can be operated remotely from anywhere to take measurements in real time. Montgomery has been fine-tuning the telescope, but its robotic feature has yet to be fully implemented.

“It’s where you even don’t have be there running it,” Montgomery said. “It’s going to be smart enough to do it all itself, and you’ll come in the next day and have all this data. It works mostly, but it still has a few glitches.”

Student and faculty research is the main purpose for this telescope, and it is open to both undergraduate and graduate students. The telescope’s high power and precision also means that much fainter objects can now be studied in more detail.

“Students can get that research experience before they even move to grad school which gives them a better chance to get into grad school,” Montgomery said. “Most schools don’t allow undergraduates to do research. You have to be a graduate student.”

Because the university actually owns the telescope, observations can be done at whatever time as long as conditions permit, and according to Montgomery, waiting to use a high-powered telescope is takes most of an astronomer’s time.

“We had access to [more powerful] telescopes through the SARA [Southeastern Association for Research] Consortium, but it’s limited,” Montgomery said. “You only get about 10 to 12 nights every six months.”

According to Montgomery, he and Williams “are very excited” about this new telescope because they and their student researchers will be the main ones using it. However, Montgomery said that it is almost inevitable that they will eventually want an even more powerful telescope.

“We’re astronomers,” Montgomery said. “After a few years of this one, we’ll be wanting a bigger one. No matter how big you get, you always want a bigger one. It’s kind of the way it is.”