U. seeks out a dark and lonely place

Astronomy » Frisco Peak offers a favorable place to study the sky.
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The University of Utah soon will have a presence on a narrow, remote Beaver County mountaintop where scientists can peer deep into the universe spread across a diamond-studded night sky.

With the naked eye, "you can see at least 10,000 stars," said Wayne Springer, an associate professor in the school's department of physics and astronomy, and director of the project to build an observatory on Frisco Peak, northwest of Milford. From an observatory, the star count is limitless.

The project -- in the works since 2001 and expected to be operating next year -- is costing about $1 million and includes a 32-inch remote-controlled telescope.

The site was selected after Springer and physics graduate student Paul Ricketts investigated several other sites atop southern Utah mountains to determine which site would offer the best qualities for "seeing."

Springer said observers use the word "seeing" to describe the clarity of the atmosphere a telescope looks through.

He said night-sky distortions, from lights to dust to turbulence, can affect viewing quality. Those distortions cause stars to twinkle. The less the stars twinkle, the better for astronomers, he said.

Springer said the new observatory will be greatly superior to the one the U. operates on its Salt Lake City campus.

Another advantage of being on top of Frisco Peak -- its elevation is 9,600 feet -- is that it already is sprouting communications towers, so electric power is readily available.

The university will use the telescope to participate in phase three of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey being conducted at New Mexico's Apache Point Observatory.

The survey's intent: Make a celestial map and, at the same time, investigate the expansion of the universe, determine chemical abundance in the galaxy and look for variations in stars that could indicate the presence of planets.

If the survey discovers something interesting, further investigation is the job of schools participating in the project.

Utah school children also may be able to take advantage of the observatory as it can be remotely controlled from classrooms.

"First, it's going to take a lot of [computer] security," said Springer. "I don't want some prisoner in Slovenia opening [the observatory] at night and letting the snow in."

Springer's assistant, Ricketts, said the telescope will be programmed remotely on where to look in the sky and take photographs. The pictures then will be put through filters to add colors to the image.

"This [telescope] will give us a much sharper and clearer image than we can get now with our observatory in Salt Lake," he said. "The sky is so much darker" above Frisco Peak.

Construction began July 16 after the project was granted a permit from the Bureau of Land Management. Getting to the site is not easy. It requires off-highway vehicles with heavy-duty tires to handle the steep road and sharp rocks.

Jeff Jacobsen, the general foreman on the project for Utah Commercial Contractors, said construction has been a challenge.

"Its pretty tight quarters," Jacobsen said.

The 18-foot tall observatory sits on an 8- foot platform.

The structure is being assembled by workers with Ash Manufacturing of Chicago that specializes in building observatories.

The structure, which rotates on an angle-iron track and can stand sustained winds of 160 mph, consists of prefabricated pieces of galvanized-aluminized sheet metal that are assembled at the site, according to worker Jim Knopp.

Springer said construction is expected to be finished in two weeks and will include a number of security cameras.


About the sky survey

To learn more about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, go to: sdss3.org.