Symposium to celebrate ?first light?

By By Deborah Rafferty

By Deborah Rafferty

Despite difficulties, including multiple flat tires and a mouse invasion, the department of physics and astronomy has reason to celebrate the “first light” of its new observatory.

The department will hold a symposium Nov. 11 in the physics department to celebrate the “first light,” or the first time the research telescope of its new Willard L. Eccles Observatory took a clear picture of the sky. The observatory is located on Frisco Peak, in Milford, Utah, away from the dimmed and hazy skies above Salt Lake City, and will be fully operational by next year. The observatory’s telescope photographed its first picture of the spiral galaxy NGC 891 last month, said Wayne Springer, associate professor of physics and astronomy.

“It’s quite a significant accomplishment,” Springer said. “Getting an observatory at the top of a 9,600-foot mountain is not an easy task.”

In the course of the two to three months that were spent building the observatory, which has been planned since 2006, one of the contractors had 11 flat tires while on the way up to the observatory, Springer said. One night, while the technicians were installing the Internet connection in the control room, they left a door open. The technician woke up later when he felt something and found three mice eating the food supplies they had brought for the week, Springer said.

The symposium that will be held next week to celebrate the observatory’s new beginning will feature various speakers from the department. Springer will speak about the observatory’s initial findings and status. Other speakers will comment on the future direction of the development of astrophysics and the future direction of the observatory, Springer said.

For the next couple of months, the scientists will work on getting the observatory to become fully operational. Springer said he expects that they will receive power by Wednesday and will have a significant Internet connection by next week.

The telescope is still undergoing a commissioning phase that will likely last three to four months, said Professor Dave Kieda, chairman of the department of physics. But once all is said and done, the telescope could be remotely operated.

“We hope to use this for course work and education, public outreach and some research,” Springer said.

Because of weather conditions and the location of the observatory, Springer said he doesn’t think the observatory will be fully useful until next spring. He said he hopes the remote-control operation will be available to use by the beginning of fall 2010 if they receive a grant to fund the project.

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