UM Reaches Into Space
The University of Montana is a national leader in research on wildlife biology, ecology, forestry and areas related to the planet on which we live. Recently we have extended our reach into outer space. A spate of major research awards have demonstrated the expertise that many of our faculty have space-related research.
The Physics Department operates the Blue Mountain Observatory with its 16” Boller and Chivens f/18 Cassegrain telescope on a permanent, equatorial mount inside an Ash Dome. A more recent addition is UM’s new 0.4 meter observatory on the Skaggs Building on the main campus. Research using telescopes recently took a giant leap forward with the help of a NASA grant to UM of $1.125M to help fund UM’s portion of project Minerva. Minerva’s goal is to find exo-planets, rocky planets similar to earth orbiting nearby stars. The project involves four telescopes, each worth about $250,000 and owned by a different institution. UM principal investigator on the project is Physics Professor Dr. Nate McCrady. McCrady says the telescopes, each with a 0.7-meter collecting mirror, will work together — flying in formation — to create the power of a telescope with a 1.4-meter mirror, an instrument that would cost $7 million.
Other universities partnering in Minerva are Harvard, Penn State and the University of New South Wales in Australia. The Minerva telescopes will be placed at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory atop 8,600-foot Mount Hopkins, located about 35 miles south of Tucson, Ariz. McCrady says Montana is a poor location for such an observatory, with its high latitude and weather-limited observing days.
“This will be the largest research telescope that anyone in the state of Montana has ever owned,” McCrady says. He’s especially excited that undergraduate students from towns across Montana will join the hunt for exoplanets.
“Our students will be walking the front lines with colleagues and students at other prestigious institutions,” McCrady says. “It really will give our students an inroad into the world of professional astrophysics.”
The telescopes will become operational later this year.
In addition to looking into space, UM researchers are reaching into space. BOREALIS (Balloon Outreach, Research, Exploration and Landscape Imaging System) is Montana Space Grant Consortium’s high altitude ballooning program and has two complete ballooning programs at UM and MSU. In the program students from a variety of disciplines work together to conceive, design and build payloads that are flown up to 100,000 feet - the edge of space. Recently, UM-BOREALIS branched into tethered balloon systems as well as radiosonde systems. The program is intended both to collect scientific data as well as to get middle school students interested in science.
To see a video showing the school mascots (UM’s Monte and MSU’s Champ) conducting a high-altitude flight experiment, watch this November 2013 flight video on YouTube.
Earlier this week NASA awarded five-year grants totaling almost $50 million to seven research teams nationwide to study the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. The University of Montana is represented on two of those grants. The interdisciplinary teams will become members of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). UM Geosciences Professor Nancy Hinman is a co-PI on the grant to the SETI Institute. The SETI Institute project team lead is Nathalie Cabrol.
According to the NASA web site “Research will produce guiding principles to better understand where to search for life, what to search for, and how to recognize finding evidence of past or current life. The goal of the proposed research is to best prepare for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.”
The University of Montana is the lead institution on one of the other NASA Astrobiology awards. UM DBS Professor Frank Rosenzweig, along with UM co-PIs Scott Miller, John McCutcheon, Margie Kinnersley, Matthew Herron and Eric Smith are RELIVING THE PAST: Experimental Evolution of Major Transitions in the History of Life. The $8.9M 5 year award will address a set of questions related to major transitions in the history of life: (i) How do enzymes and metabolic networks evolve? (ii) How did the eukaryotic cell, specifically the cell that contained a mitochondrion, come to be? (iii) How do symbioses arise? (iv) How does multicellularity evolve? and (v) How do pleiotropy, epistasis and mutation rate constrain the evolution of novel traits? A unifying theme underlying these questions is determining the relative roles of cooperative vs. competitive interactions in driving major transitions. Other universities working with UM on this project are Stanford, UNH, Colorado and the UPenn.