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Senior Christos Gian­nakopoulos traveled to the Kitt Peak National Obser­vatory in Tucson, Arizona, over fall break to study bow-shock nebulae. Tim Dolch | Courtesy

Stu­dents at Hillsdale College no longer have access to using the tele­scope at Kitt Peak National Obser­vatory, after the National Science Foundation’s astronomy division divested from the project this year.

The physics department has taken two trips to the Tucson, Arizona, obser­vatory this year, after the foun­dation approved pro­posals that Assistant Pro­fessor of Physics Tim Dolch sub­mitted for research on bow-shock nebulae. The visits mark some of the final oppor­tu­nities for public access to the obser­vatory after a con­sortium of several uni­ver­sities bought it and are not accepting research pro­posals from outside astronomers.

The divestment and pri­va­ti­zation of small-to-mid-sized tele­scopes has become a trend, as the foun­dation looks to devote its resources to larger tele­scopes that may not have the same acces­si­bility to science, tech­nology, engi­neering, and math­e­matics, or STEM, stu­dents. That shrinks the research oppor­tu­nities for many, espe­cially those at smaller col­leges and uni­ver­sities such as Hillsdale, Dolch said.

“Student acces­si­bility has got to be a factor in divestment deci­sions,” Dolch said. “Why do people go in the direction of STEM careers? It’s because you have an inter­esting expe­rience, so I don’t think you can under­es­timate that value of being an under­graduate, using a world-class facility, and having that direct expe­rience of exploring some­thing in nature.”

At Kitt Peak, researchers could submit observing pro­posals to request use of the Mayall 4-Meter Tele­scope. An anonymous com­mittee would review them and either reject the request or allot time for their use of the tele­scope.

“People are really dis­ap­pointed, because this tele­scope has been the place to go to for a long time for optical astronomy,” said sophomore Christopher Schei­thauer, who traveled to Kitt Peak over the summer with Hillsdale.

Dolch received approval to search for bow-shock nebulae this summer and at the end of October. The nebulae form when pulsars, rotating neutron stars that emit radio waves, plow through inter­stellar gas. Dolch has interest in them because they can be used to help identify grav­i­ta­tional waves coming from merging super­massive black holes, which have yet to be detected, and explain why the waves arrive to Earth when they do.

“It’s part of the story of galaxy evo­lution,” Dolch said. “These black holes exist in the center of galaxies. They merge with each other, and a lot of our own galaxy’s history probably has to do with mergers in the distant past. And in the future, we are going to merge with the Andromeda Galaxy.”

During the first visit this summer, monsoon season pre­vented Dolch, junior Laura Salo, and Schei­thauer from opening the dome and col­lecting data.

Over fall break, however, senior Christos Gian­nakopoulos and Dolch stayed up two nights in a row and suc­cess­fully pho­tographed the heavens with the Mayall 4-Meter Tele­scope for Gian­nakopoulos’ senior thesis. He will review the images col­lected from 40 pulsars to find a bow-shock nebula, if pos­sible, and identify an upper limit for the exposure time used to gen­erate the images.

“I was so lucky to be one of the last non-con­sortium student to use it,” Gian­nakopoulos said. “I’m very grateful for that. I’ve been inter­ested in astro­physics since I was young, and it stim­u­lated my interest even more.”

Dolch said it is dis­ap­pointing to no longer have the oppor­tunity to use Kitt Peak’s tele­scope, since its 4-meter diameter is an ideal size for observing the nebulae.

While there are a few other sim­i­larly sized tele­scopes available, to which he has already sub­mitted observing pro­posals, Dolch expressed con­cerns that the focus on building 10-meter or 30-meter tele­scopes limits resources available to STEM stu­dents.

“Building bigger and better tele­scopes doesn’t mean the dis­covery potential of existing tele­scopes is any­where near over,” Dolch said. “There’s a certain phi­losophy there that I am not sure is sus­tainable long-term.”

Arecibo Obser­vatory in Puerto Rico also is facing a threat of divestment. Hillsdale stu­dents access its radio tele­scope about once a month through the North American Nanohertz Obser­vatory for Grav­i­ta­tional Waves and control it from the Radio Tele­scope Remote Command Center in the Stro­sacker Science Building to collect data on grav­i­ta­tional waves. A much larger facility than Kitt Peak, Arecibo has had more chal­lenges finding a private owner.

“We’re hoping some last-minute funding might come through,” Schei­thauer said. “At a college as small as Hillsdale, you wouldn’t think you would have access to these world-class instru­ments. I never thought I would be able to control one of the largest moveable objects on the planet.”

Dolch said he does have hope that more resources will be devoted to exploring grav­i­ta­tional waves in the future. Every 10 years, the National Academy of Sci­ences con­ducts its Astronomy and Astro­physics Decadal Survey, which reviews where it allo­cates its resources and pri­or­i­tizes where it will invest them for the next decade.

Given the lack of progress on detecting grav­i­ta­tional waves in 2010, the foun­dation began moving away from sup­porting the endeavor.

Since then, however, the Laser Inter­fer­ometer Grav­i­ta­tional-Wave Obser­vatory has detected grav­i­ta­tional waves, reviving interest in the research and renewing the hope of dis­cov­ering new astro­physical phe­nomena in space.

“Grav­i­ta­tional waves are a whole new way of seeing the sky,” Dolch said. “There are all kinds of physics that are opening up.”

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Physi­cists have been looking for empirical evi­dence of grav­i­ta­tional waves since the 1970’s, as I recall. So many dif­ferent approaches that didn’t bear fruit. This is the first I’ve read that a Laser Inter­fer­ometer Grav­i­ta­tional-Wave Obser­vatory has detected grav­i­ta­tional waves. What type of par­ticle is respon­sible for these phe­nomenon?

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Inci­den­tally, as someone who has spent 40+ years in Elec­trical Engi­neering-now working for one of the Big 3 on Hybrid/Electric vehicles-I very much endorse STEM and Engi­neering in par­ticular as a career choice. I have no idea if Hillsdale College will even­tually add a pro­fes­sional program, but if they do they could do worse than to offer an Engi­neering Program. Salaries for new grad­uates are very good and there will be many job openings in Michigan over the next few years. It would def­i­nitely accent your core com­pe­tencies in a pos­itive way, my obser­va­tions are that many engi­neers are conservative/libertarian in their political phi­losophy.

  • plank5463

    Such kind of foun­dation will be very useful for every one. So many people are have more about this National Science Foun­dation and they like this organ­i­sation.