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 CTIO.

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 world turns.

PROMPT Description (7/05)

PROMPT Team (7/05)

PROMPT Announcement (7/04)

PROMPT Concept Design (6/04)

PROMPT Photo Album

PROMPTcam: View PROMPT Live!

Abraham Goodman Laboratory for Astronomical Instrumentation

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