Prof shows off first photos from new observatory

By By , Staff Writer

By Deborah Rafferty , Staff Writer

The U department of physics and astronomy held the “first light” symposium Wednesday, celebrating the first photographs taken by the department’s new telescope.

The observatory, the Willard L. Eccles Observatory at Frisco Peak, houses a telescope with a 32-inch lens, which took its first picture of the NGC 891 galaxy Oct. 15. The skies above Salt Lake City were too dim for the astronomy students to truly reach for the stars8212;and Wednesday night, they saw what their new telescope can show them.

“These pictures rival some of the best pictures I’ve seen on the Internet,” said Wayne Springer, a professor in the department. “If you look really closely, you can see smudges. Those are more distant galaxies.”

Several members of the department spoke at the symposium, detailing the work that has gone into building the observatory, as well as the growth of the department and future projects. Springer showed off the picture of the NGC 891 galaxy, the observatory’s first photograph, as well as pictures taken the next night. Those pictures included other galaxies, the Veil Nebula, the constellation Pegasus and several other stars.

Springer also showed off pictures of the observatory site at the top of Frisco Peak in Southern Utah, as well as pictures of the construction process. The audience laughed with his commentaries of the various pictures, such as the one of the ground-breaking July 16. Springer was smiling in the photograph, a rare occurrence, but that day he was one of the lucky few who did not get a flat tire on the way up to the observatory, he said. During the construction process, there were 11 instances of workers getting flat tires because there is no paved road up the mountain, Springer said.

The majority of the work on the telescope is finished, and workers will now fine-tune the instruments. They will also work on developing the facility’s remote capabilities so U students will be able to access the telescope from Salt Lake City, Springer said.

The department plans to have the observatory fully operational within three to four months and grant students access within six months, said David Kieda, professor and chairman of the U physics and astronomy department.

At the symposium, Kieda touched on the growth of the department of physics and astronomy. In the past few years, the department has added four new faculty members, joined the Sloan Digital Sky Survey as major partners and built two observatories, the first located in Grantsville. The department has also added an astronomy minor, and the faculty hopes to have an undergraduate program, as well as master’s and doctorate programs by the end of the year, Kieda said.

“This is part of an overall push by the college of science to move into the top 20 colleges of science in the country,” said Pierre Sokolsky, dean of the College of Science, about recent changes to the department and the new observatory. “It is a great opportunity for the university to build the program.”

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Eddie Schneckloth/The Daily Utah Chronicle

Professor of physics and astronomy David Kieda talks about the site of the U?s new observatory. The Willard L. Eccles Observatory is located at Frisco Peak in Southern Utah and houses a telescope with a 32-inch lens.