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College of Science and Mathematics

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Website Update

$233,000 NSF Grant Funds Telescopes for Research and Community Use

October 12, 2012

SAN LUIS OBISPO — orbits of planets and kuiper beltA free 11-inch telescope may be coming to a rural California town near you thanks to an NSF grant recently awarded to Physics Professor John Keller. The $233,000 grant, which Keller will share with Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in Boulder, Colo., will bring 10 telescopes to towns stretching along the California-Nevada border.

Keller and his collaborators at SWRI want to learn more about Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) — large, frozen bodies that orbit the sun beyond Neptune. The most famous KBO is the former planet Pluto.

Not much is known about KBOs because they are so far from the sun. This experiment will measure their sizes, which could in turn help scientists understand their physical composition.

"Understanding the sizes of KBOs will help us better understand the composition and formation of these objects," Keller said. "They're relics from the very first days of our solar system. They haven't been changed significantly for over 4.5 billion years."

map of towns that will receive telescopes

Map of the towns that will receive telescopes.
Towns participating in the pilot project are in red.

Keller and Buie will measure the sizes of KBOs using the objects' shadows. At predicted times, KBOs that pass between Earth and a given star will hide the star from view, an astronomical event called an occultation. An observer in the right location can witness the star blink out and then come back as a KBO's shadow passes by.

The challenge with recording these occultations is that the path of the KBOs' shadows could be anywhere from the Canadian to the Mexican border, so the astronomers need some help.

With the telescopes provided by the grant, citizen scientists in 10 rural California and Nevada communities will be trained to watch the sky on specific nights. Some will see the star blink out and some will not. The distance between the towns that record the occultation will allow Keller and Buie to calculate the size of the KBOs.

"All of these communities will be looking at the same star doing the same science at the same time," Keller said. "The project will be a team effort involving communities to collectively accomplish cutting-edge science that couldn't be done without them."

The 10 communities will be members of the Research and Education Cooperative Occultation Network (RECON), a pilot project to test the citizen scientist approach. If it's successful, Keller and Buie hope to expand the project over the next five years to include 40 communities located between Yuma, Arizona and Tonasket, Wash.

When the telescopes are not in use tracking KBOs, local libraries, school programs and amateur astronomers can use the instruments for educational programs. If you're interested in receiving more information on this project, please contact Keller at jmkeller@calpoly.edu.

Follow Keller and Buie's blog of their road trip to find community partners

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