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This winter, three telescopes with mirrors the size of kitchen tables will be arriving at the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer on Anderson Mesa, east of Lake Mary. The giant Y-shaped telescope array synthesizes light from six dinner plate-sized mirrors spread across an area the size of four football fields.

The new arrivals are the centerpiece of a $3.2 million project to upgrade the telescopes and boost the interferometer’s observational power. The system is operated jointly by Lowell Observatory, the U.S. Naval Observatory and the Naval Research Laboratory.

As that project gets started, another astronomical construction project is just finishing up. At Northern Arizona University, a group of seven graduate and undergraduate students has worked during the school year to build a thermal infrared camera that can measure heat coming off objects in space, such as the moon or asteroids whizzing by Earth. While such cameras exist at other observatories, they are heavy, expensive and must be kept at extremely cold temperatures.

That’s where the NAU students broke new ground, said David Trilling, a professor of physics and astronomy who helped advise the students.

Using a new technology declassified by the military, the students were able to produce a device that weighs less than a cellphone, operates at room temperature with power from a wall outlet and costs 20 to 50 times less than previous infrared camera models, Trilling said.

“You don't need a multimillion-dollar observatory to make it happen,” he said.

While vastly different in scope and scale, both projects continue to elevate Flagstaff as a center of astronomical innovation.

A HALLWAY CONVERSATION

The idea for the thermal infrared camera, called the Thermal Infrared Planetary Science Imager, or TIPSI, emerged during a hallway conversation between Trilling, and two of his colleagues, he said. They then gathered a group of students who worked on the camera over the course of two semesters on a budget of $15,000. The finished product fits in a purple canister that can be held with one hand and is fitted onto the Barry Lutz Telescope on NAU’s campus, Trilling said.

Because older versions of thermal infrared cameras need to be kept cold using liquid nitrogen or liquid helium, which are both expensive to obtain and handle, many observatories have walked away from their cameras, Trilling said. That means that NAU’s thermal infrared camera is one of just a few in the world that are operational for general use, he said.

The camera’s low cost and easy-to-maintain design also makes it a prototype that could be replicated for other universities or observatories, allowing more of them to take advantage of the scientific capabilities of such an instrument, Trilling said.

He called it “amazing capability for not very much money.”

TELESCOPES IN TRAILERS

Gerard van Belle, a Lowell Observatory astronomer and newly named director of the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer, is overseeing the two-year upgrade to the telescope system on Anderson Mesa. Each of the three larger telescopes will be housed in movable trailers, like those used for camping, so they can be easily moved to different mounts along the array, van Belle said. Moving the telescopes closer together or farther apart along the spokes of the system acts like a zoom function on a camera, allowing the observer to narrow or broaden his or her focus on a particular object, he said.

In general, the bigger telescopes also allow astronomers to observe far fainter objects than telescopes with smaller diameter mirrors, van Belle said. He said he expects the new telescopes to increase the interferometer’s light gathering capability by a factor of 70 times.

He is particularly excited about the system’s capability to observe small stars, especially because scientists are beginning to discover more and more planets around small stars and the way to characterize those planets is through characterizing the stars, van Belle said.

After six years at Lowell, van Belle said it is gratifying to see such a major project moving forward. This technology can help answer questions about how planets form when stars are forming or how stars are put together on the inside, he said.

“What I really want to do is take it into the modern era as far as having bigger telescopes and a lot more sensitivity and really demonstrate what this kind of technology can do,” he said of the interferometer.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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