Astronomers at the University of the Virgin Islands were granted access to two of the world’s largest telescopes in Chile and Hawaii by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). Scientists, collaborators and students will now be better equipped to study gamma-ray bursts (GRB), explosive phenomena generated by exploding stars 30 to 100 times larger than our sun. These may be the first generation of stars ever to have formed in the universe, which makes their analysis critical to our deepening understanding of the formation of the universe.
“We are entering a great era in the history of UVI astronomy,” said Dr. Antonino Cucchiara, assistant professor of Physics in the College of Science and Mathematics. “Because our students will be able to participate in cutting-edge research that is a top priority of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the University of the Virgin Islands will take on a significant role within the worldwide spectrum of top astronomy research institutions.”
The Gemini Observatory consists of two eight meter telescopes that collectively provide access to the entire sky from strategic mountaintop locations, and are capable of providing nuanced information about astronomical events that is not visible through smaller telescopes. The UVI team was granted four hours of use on the southern Chilean telescope, and ranked in the top quartile for the Northern telescope in Hawaii. Meanwhile, a smaller but faster robotic telescope is coming online at the Etelman Observatory (the Virgin Islands Robotic Telescope, VIRT), which will be able to identify gamma-ray bursts (GRB’s) a few minutes after they have been discovered by satellites. With access to both technologies in different parts of the world, UVI researchers will be among the first to obtain and analyze GRB data as it becomes available.
GRB’s are usually identified by a rapid “flash” of very energetic gamma rays that only lasts a few seconds. NASA’s Swift satellite, launched in 2004 to study these phenomena, detects 100 GRB’s a year. Once the gamma-ray emission is detected, the satellite communicates the coordinates of the GRB explosions to scientists and computers around the world via email and text messages. Within a few minutes after the explosion, the UVI team is able to point the VIRT and other facilities at its disposal, such as the Gemini telescope, to collect data immediately. To rapidly receive these data from distant facilities, astronomers like Dr. Cucchiara and the Etelman Observatory staff can communicate with the astronomers in Chile to obtain critical data in real time. This data is analyzed at UVI and the results are shared with the astronomical community via the GRB Circular Network, which is a specialized mailing-listed based at NASA, within a few hours after the GRB explosion
According to Dr. Cucchiara, who spearheaded the initiative, one factor that contributed to the proposal’s success was the physical location of the Etelman Observatory. Because UVI has the easternmost astronomical observatory in the United States, VIRT will be the first in line after Europe to pick up satellite detections of gamma-ray explosions. From these images, Cucchiara and his team will be able to determine whether or not an explosion is worth a more detailed look. If it is, UVI researchers are now authorized to tell Gemini South technicians in Chile to drop whatever it is they are doing and point at the explosion. They can also tell the technicians how to point, in an effort to collect maximum useable data from the massive telescope about the distance and chemical composition of the bursts.
“We are essentially filling a gap between observatories in Europe and Arizona,” said Cucchiara. “By adjusting the strategy for exploration of the bursts based on what we see, we will be able to share resources with a worldwide network of astronomers. Analyzing these astronomical events will help to explain how the universe evolved. It will also function as part of a knowledge base for a wide variety of climate change studies involving water, wind speed and weather analysis in general.
Dr. Cucchiara and his colleague, Dr. David Morris – assistant professor of Physics and director of the Etelman Observatory – are excited about the incredible opportunities that are opening up to do top level science at UVI through remote access to sophisticated technology at other facilities and institutions. But they are also eager to raise awareness about local astronomy developments with an eye toward fortifying their own facility. According to Dr. Cucchiara, UVI’s astronomy program and observatory are strong, but additional support is still needed for supplemental equipment, a past-due overhaul of the observatory’s computer system, and more volunteers.
“We will certainly be applying for grants,” said Dr. Cucchiara. “And we’re hopeful about that because our goal is to become more of a resource for scientists from all over the world.” Cucchiara continued, “The more we can engage with the worldwide network of astronomers, the more able we will become to give our students incredible opportunities to continue their education in astronomy and physics. The experience they gain at UVI will also catapult them to the forefront of research experiences at other institutions such as NASA, the Space Telescope Science Institute or Harvard.”