Panchromatic Robotic Optical Monitoring and Polarimetry Telescopes
Solidworks by Chris Clemens and the Abraham Goodman Laboratory for Astronomical Instrumentation
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been awarded two grants
totaling $912,000 from the National Science Foundation to build six special
purpose telescopes at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in
the Chilean Andes. These telescopes, which have been specifically designed
to identify and study the most distant objects in the universe, will also
serve as a platform for undergraduate and high school education throughout
the state of North Carolina.
Called PROMPT (which stands for "Panchromatic Robotic Optical Monitoring
and Polarimetry Telescopes"), these telescopes have been specifically
designed to study very powerful but very distant explosions called
gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). Astronomers have only recently learned that GRBs
result when stars that are more than thirty times as massive as the sun
reach the end of their lives and collapse to form black holes. The GRB is
the birth cry of the black hole.
Since gamma rays do not penetrate Earth's atmosphere, PROMPT will be fed
targets from spacecraft that have been designed to find GRBs. The most
powerful satellite will be NASA's Swift, which is due to be launched later
this year. Swift is expected to discover one GRB every few days and will
transmit their coordinates to computers on the ground within tens of
seconds of each explosion.
PROMPT will then observe these GRBs at visible and infrared wavelengths,
and will do so within mere seconds of spacecraft notification, when they
are still expected to be very bright, even if at great distances.
However, since humans cannot react on so rapid a timescale, PROMPT will be
100% computer controlled. Such telescopes -- telescopes that do not
require humans to operate them -- are called robotic telescopes.
Each of the PROMPT telescopes will have a unique capability: One will be
optimized to observe violet light; one will be optimized to observe blue
light; one will be optimized to observe red light; one will be optimized to
observe very red light; one will be optimized to observe infrared light,
which the human eye cannot see; and one will measure the polarization, or
orientation, of incoming light waves, which should yield valuable
information about the role of magnetic fields in the creation of GRBs.
As many as 10% of Swift's GRBs are expected to be more distant than the
most distant object yet identified in the universe. PROMPT's ability to
observe GRBs simultaneously in multiple colors, and to do so quickly before
they fade away, will allow it to "promptly" pick out record breakers. Since
light travels at a finite speed, the most distant GRBs are thought to have
emitted their light when the universe was only 1% of its current age. In
this way, PROMPT will use GRBs to probe the early universe.
When a record breaker is identified, the six 0.4-meter diameter PROMPT
telescopes will also relay this information to the much larger 4.1-meter
diameter SOAR (Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research) telescope,
which is only one mountaintop away. SOAR, which was dedicated this past
April, is a modern telescope that is uniquely suited to observe transients
like GRBs within minutes with an array of advanced instrumentation.
Although slower than PROMPT, SOAR has a very rapid response time for so
large of a telescope. SOAR will use PROMPT GRBs as cosmic backlights to
probe the early universe in even more powerful ways.
UNC-Chapel Hill is the founding partner of the SOAR Consortium and will
lead GRB science with SOAR.
When not chasing GRBs, PROMPT will be used by undergraduate and high school
students across the state of North Carolina for a wide variety of projects.
UNC-Chapel Hill is the lead partner, but PROMPT Collaboration institutions
also include Appalachian State University, Elon University, Fayetteville
State University, Guilford Technical Community College, North Carolina
Agricultural and Technical State University, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Charlotte,
UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Pembroke, Western Carolina University, and
Hampden-Sydney College just across the border in southern Virginia. Each
of these institutions will have about 420 hours per year of observing time
between the six PROMPT telescopes, giving them guaranteed access to CTIO --
one of the world's best observatories -- and to the southern sky.
Furthermore, since PROMPT is a robotic telescope system, none of these
institutions will have to raise additional money to send students to Chile
to use the telescopes -- a very expensive proposition. Instead, students
will simply submit observing requests to PROMPT using a web interface.
PROMPT will automatically observe each target, usually within a few days,
and then return the collected images to the students for analysis.
Morehead Planetarium and Science Center (MPSC) will have about 2,300 hours
per year for K-12 education and public outreach. Bob Gotwals, Associate
Director of MPSC, hopes to bring PROMPT into every high school in the state
of North Carolina. Funded by a $50,000 NASA grant, MPSC is developing a
curriculum for high school science classes that will allow them to submit
observing requests to PROMPT using the same web interface that the
undergraduate students will use. This curriculum will also satisfy a new
state-wide graduation requirement.
PROMPT is being built in two phases. Phase I, which is supported by a
$130,000 pledge from UNC-Chapel Hill's Department of Physics and Astronomy
and a $100,000 gift from alumnus Leonard Goodman, is scheduled to begin in
just a few weeks. In September, two professors, one graduate student, and
fifteen undergraduate students will arrive at CTIO, where they will
assemble PROMPT as part of a UNC-Chapel Hill semester abroad program. Phase
I will be completed in late 2004 and Phase II, which supports a major
upgrade of the equipment, will be completed in mid-2005.
Some of PROMPT's instrumentation will first be built at UNC-Chapel Hill's
Goodman Laboratory for Astronomical Instrumentation before being shipped to
Once completed, PROMPT will be monitored every night by graduate and
undergraduate students from UNC-Chapel Hill's new Henry Cox Remote
Observing Center on campus. Students will also be able to observe with
SOAR and a number of other telescopes from this facility.
PROMPT is the brainchild of a team led by Dan Reichart, Assistant Professor
of Physics and Astronomy at UNC-Chapel Hill. In 2003, Reichart received
the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's Robert J. Trumpler Award for top
Ph.D. dissertation research in North America. This research, which links
GRBs to the deaths of massive stars, also made Science Magazine's "Top Ten
Breakthroughs in Science" list in 1999. Reichart also leads the Follow-Up
Network for Gamma-Ray Bursts (a.k.a. the FUN GRB Collaboration), a global
network of about thirty telescopes that chase GRBs continuously as the
PROMPT is funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Leonard Goodman, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Dudley Observatory, Henry Cox, and the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute.
Dan Reichart's Home Page