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Great Basin Observatory Adds Superior Spectrograph

March 22, 2021 - 2 minute read

John Kenney, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Physics at CUI, has helped secure another grant to fund ongoing work at the Great Basin Observatory (GBO) in Great Basin National Park. This grant will fund the purchase of a more-advanced spectrograph to help students at CUI and partner universities study exoplanets — those distant planetary bodies circling stars in other parts of our galaxy.

“This grant will enable our students to have access to the truly topnotch equipment necessary to do exciting astronomical research,” says Kerri Tom, Interim Dean of Arts and Sciences. “This is something I could not have imagined when I first came to Concordia. Who knows what our students may discover among the stars?” 

Dr. Kenney, the engine behind all of CUI’s astronomy grants, wrote this proposal to secure a grant for $60,000 from the Mt. Cuba Astronomical Foundation to add a high-resolution spectrograph to the Great Basin Observatory (GBO) telescope. The partner universities and the Great Basin National Park Foundation paid the other $60,000 to purchase the $120,000 piece of equipment. 

An astronomical spectrograph splits light emanating from distant celestial bodies into its component energies. Those light emissions give much information about what a star or exoplanet is made out of, its temperature, whether it is moving toward us or away from us, and so on. The spectrograph itself is rectangular object a yard-and a-half long filled with precision optical components: lenses, mirrors, and diffraction gratings. It uses a CCD (Charge Coupled Device) light detector, similar to those used in modern digital cameras, to refract starlight into its constituent wavelengths, creating a unique astrophysical signature in the form of spectral lines and bands. With it, observers can identify and study supernovas, galaxies, stars, globular clusters and exoplanets. 

The GBO telescope with its 29.5-inch primary light collecting mirror, sits at around 7,000 feet above sea level in the remote and spectacular Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. The park is noted for its clear, dark, “astronomically friendly” night sky. The telescope and the new spectrograph are completely controllable from a laptop computer or smart phone from anywhere in the world with web access. 

“I can sit at my desk at Concordia and make it move, tell it what kind of data to take in, track this object or that object,” says Kenney. “Students have every chance to discover and elucidate the spectroscopic details of exoplanets. There is no shortage of things to look at with the observatory and spectrograph. There are more interesting projects in the heavens than there are astronomers or observatories to investigate them.” 

Groups of CUI students are already doing research projects involving the telescope. Kenney and his Concordia faculty colleagues also host “star parties” for local school children, in which they can see live images from the GBO. Many exoplanets have been discovered but not studied, leaving room for plenty of fresh research. Exoplanets are discovered by their effect on a star’s orbit or through dips in light intensity when the planet passes in front of its star. CUI students will be able to look closer at these fascinating, far-away bodies, and analyze them. 

“In so doing, the students learn a tremendous amount of how the equipment in the observatory works,” Kenney says. “That is transferable skill which would be found in any scientific or technical workplace.”

Photos courtesy of the Great Basin National Park Foundation.

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