Gathered around a steel camera box inside the Wyoming Infrared Observatory, a group of University of Wyoming freshmen pitched questions over the sound of lowing cattle about the infrared telescope’s capabilities.
Astronomy and physics majors, the students ignored the boisterous barnyard banter bleeding through the observatory dome walls as they participated in their first tour of the nation’s second highest professional observatory, which overlooks the Laramie Valley from atop Jelm Mountain at 9,656 feet.
“The beauty of having your own observatory is that students can get their hands on the equipment,” UW Astronomy and Physics Professor Chip Kobulnicky said. “Most major observatories are very hands off. The professionals tell you ‘Don’t touch, don’t mess anything up.’ Here, our philosophy is ‘Touch.’”
The infrared observatory hosts the world’s first major telescope to be controlled by computer and remains the nation’s largest observatory owned by a single institution, he said. But being owned and operated by the university sometimes means the aspiring astronomers have to share space with other researchers such as UW Department of Molecular Biology Associate Professor Mark Stayton, who is conducting a high-altitude experiment on the observatory property with cattle bred from bovines and yaks, Kobulnicky said.
For most of the students, touring the facility would be a memorable first-time experience, but for Chase Smith, an 18-year-old from Mountain View, the tour was nostalgic.
“I always knew I wanted to be a scientist,” Smith said. “But when I came here for the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp about five years ago, they showed us this telescope being typed in with right ascension and declination — like latitude and longitude, but in the sky — I thought that was really cool.”
After leaving the camp, he found himself plastering constellations to his ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stars and yearning to learn more about astronomy.
“It feels surreal being here again,” Smith said. “I remember where we camped up here, and I remember which computer we used to type in the coordinates of the stars.”
Kobulnicky said he’s always excited to see new students enter the program, but having a former summer camp attendee show an interest in the program years later confirms the value of outreach programs.
“Chase is a good example of a student that got interested in science because of one of the university outreach programs,” he said. “It tells us that these early interventions programs matter and get kids interested in science.”
Inside the telescope control room, the group huddled around clusters of technology from the last four decades. A boxy black-screened monitor displayed telescope data in orange letters, while a compact display unit across the room provided weather graphics on a full-color LCD screen. A tape deck gathered dust behind a server tower blinking with red and blue LED lights. A lunch-box sized cathode ray tube television was set on a shelf above a flat-screen computer monitor.
“The local meridian is the line that divides the sky in half running north and south,” Kobulnicky explained as he typed telescope commands into a desktop computer. “That’s where we get the terms a.m. and p.m. — ante meridiem, before the meridian, and post meridiem, after the meridian.”
Built in the 1970s, the observatory was operational by 1977 and cost about $2 million to construct, according to information provided by UW. While weather on Jelm Mountain can be extreme with wind speeds reaching 100 mph and temperatures dropping below minus 40 Fahrenheit, the location was selected for its proximity to Laramie, comparatively low air turbulence and dark night skies. The 2.3-meter telescope is a classical Cassegrain design, which includes a large, concave primary mirror with a parabolic surface and a smaller convex secondary mirror with a hyperbolic shape, UW documents state.
The facility also provides sleeping quarters for researchers, but Kobulnicky said they are rarely used nowadays.
“The sleeping unit was used historically so a group could spend a week up there, but we don’t use it for that as much,” he explained. “With the internet, we can operate the observatory from the (UW) campus. We have to be on site to change equipment out, but operationally we can do everything else from campus.”
In addition to being the only university that provides tours for freshmen in their first week of school, UW uses the facility for several research projects, Kobulnicky said.
“One of my exciting projects is observing a double star that we believe will be merging in the next five years,” he said. “This has never been predicted and observed before.”
UW Physics and Astronomy Professor Mike Brotherton is currently using the observatory to measure the masses of black holes, Kobulnicky said.
“Black holes don’t emit their own light,” he explained. “You have to study them by the light emitted near them. (From the research), we can learn about the evolution of galaxies, and the role black holes have in creating them.”
In conjunction with associate professors Hannah Jang-Condell and Michael Pierce, Kobulnicky said he is also in the process of building a spectrograph that will measure the velocity of stars.
“The spectrograph will enable us to detect planets around (stars),” he said. “That’s one of the most exciting parts of astrophysics right now — discovering other planets.”
During a pause in the tour, students crowded into a lounge area to discuss their observations and absorb the data they received.
“There’s like a two-class difference from physics to astronomy, so it’s like, ‘Why not?’” said Alex Higley, an 18-year-old native of Parker, Colorado.
At an early age, Higley acquired a taste for scientific knowledge through television programs.
“In fifth grade, I was watching a documentary about stars and it was really wicked sweet,” she said. “I like reading about theoretical physics — looking at why things work and how things work.”
Although Higley said she is more interested in studying the cosmos than engineering, she said the tour was an engaging venue for introducing potential researchers to their equipment.
Kobulnicky said bringing freshmen to the facility early in their first semester helps generate interest in the program and provides students the opportunity to dabble in astronomy right from the get go.
“Students can get a hands-on learning experience about how to work with objects and electronics in ways you cannot do at most major observatories,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “If you break it, fix it, but learn from it. One of my advisors used to say, ‘The amount learned is proportional to the amount broken.’”