PARI from secret spy station to educational resources

"It's much more interesting to actually command a telescope to move and take a picture and get it back than to look at pictures in a book," said Charles Osborne, Technical Director at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute near Brevard, N.C.

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And that's exactly PARI's mission, in the latest incarnation of what used to be a super-secret site for intelligence gathering by the National Security Agency.

Although few people who live in nearby towns may be aware of PARI's existence, the institute in Western North Carolina is rapidly becoming a valuable resource for area schools, colleges and universities. For students and professors alike, access to PARI means a closer link with the universe. "To use the site here as an extension of their own lab can give it more of a hands-on feeling," said Osborne.

History Of PARI

 

the inflatable planetarium, gives school children a new perspective on the universe at PARI near Brevard, N.C

A project underway in the physics department at S.C. State University demonstrates PARI's potential use by a wide range of students, from kindergarten to college-age. A year ago, department head Dr. Jim Payne, launched a four-year program to integrate research into science, engineering, and math curricula. The interdisciplinary approach includes electromagnetic radiation, chemistry, math skills, mapping, and trigonometry, computer skills and technology. "The general idea is to allow undergraduate students the opportunity to do research," Payne said. "Ours is sort of a unique program, in that the groups that are directly connected with PARI are student research teams."

The teams, coordinated by Dr. Don Walter, are set up to prepare students to operate in a professional setting once they're out in the real world. At the same time, they'll be making some of PARI's equipment available to classrooms for younger students, through the Internet. Walter oversees four teams, each consisting of an instructor, who serves as a mentor, and three students who will visit PARI this summer periodically.

"These teams are made up of a student from physics, from engineering technology and one from computer science," Payne said.

"Then they have a faculty mentor who works with them. The concept was to create the type of situation students will experience when they got into a research or industrial career. They will be working with a team consisting of technical people from all areas."

One team is focusing on controlling computers using the Web. Another team will concentrate primarily on all the data produced, and a third team will study radio astronomy.

 The Web-based team will be working with "Smiley," the 4.6-meter satellite dish at PARI that gets its nickname from the smiley-face painted on it.

It's a joke harking back to the old NSA days, when the staff painted the face on the dish to smile back at Russian satellites as they passed overhead. The dish has been known as "Smiley" ever since.

The students' task is to make it possible for other colleges and even k-12 students to have control of the dish, using the Internet to record data.

"So a classroom at a high school or middle school could be taking data over a real telescope," Payne said.

"They could see the display of how they are controlling it and where they are moving it to. This is going to be a very good teaching tool, I think - especially the little dish, Smiley."

The program consists of eight weeks of research during the summer per team, followed by additional work during the academic year. The project will also benefit students who never set foot on PARI's gounds, because team members will make presentations in the classrooms.

"We hope to use data from PARI even in courses like physical science, a non-major science course," Payne said. "All our students are undergraduates. It's kind of unique, having them do radio astronomy."

Others are already making good use of the equipment at PARI.

At Chapel Hill, Mercedes Lopez-Morales, a 28-year-old graduate student in physics, has begun a three-year optical survey for her doctoral project with her advisor, Dr. J.C. Clemens.Her project is titled, "Pisgah Automated Survey For the Search of M-Dwarf Eclipsing Binaries."

 "M-dwarfs" are stars like the Sun, said Mercedes Lopez-Morales of UNC-Chapel Hill, but with masses ranging from half the mass of the Sun, all the way down to those described as "brown dwarfs" (with 0.08 solar masses or less).

M-dwarfs are the most abundant type of star in the Universe, adding up to 70 percent of the stars in our Galaxy and in the Sun's neighborhood. But they are very faint objects, and therefore hard to detect.

"Being such a large fraction of the stars near the Sun, we want to get to know better their physical properties, which is the main scientific idea behind this survey," Mercedes said. "When we get to be able to fly to planets surrounding nearby stars, chances are that the star will be an M-dwarf!"

Explaining how a would-be star makes it to the big-time, she said, "You have a bunch of mass in there that is coming together because of gravity, becoming more and more dense.

"As it is compressing, it is heating up, so the temperature of the core of these 'balls of gas' is going up.

"If it gets to be hot enough to start hydrogen-burning nuclear reactions, it becomes a star. But if it doesn't,we call it a brown dwarf."

She is looking for these M-dwarfs by taking images of some portions of the sky, over and over.

"We measure the amount of light coming from each star in those images. And then we plot that amount of light versus time. This plot is called a 'light curve.'

"From the shape of the light curve one can determine if the star is in fact a binary, and if the stars forming that binary are M-dwarfs. From there you can find the mass and size of the stars".

 "It is pretty cool, but it is a lot of work," said Lopez-Morales, who is from the Spanish-owned Canary Islands.
PARI to take three-minute images of the sky, capturing up to 120 to 150 images each night.
"The main problem when you do astronomy is to get the use of a telescope," she said. "There (at PARI), we have 365 days to use it. Normally, you have to apply for telescope time, and you get two or three nights per year, if you are lucky."

She set up a telescope at PARI to take three-minute images of the sky, capturing up to 120 to 150 images each night. The images are transferred to compact disks, which the PARI staff mails to her at Chapel Hill.

Luckily, she doesn't have to make the four- or five-hour drive very often. "We usually go only when the telescope breaks down, or I need to replace something, like every couple of months," she said.

"This is a program that does automatic observing," Osborne said. "The telescope's dome opens automatically, and the telescope takes pictures on a CD. Mercedes has taken 60 CD's worth of images."

Besides the equipment it offers, PARI is in an ideal setting.The location is well-suited for astronomical research and study because of the natural bowl-shaped terrain. With no nearby power transmission lines,scheduled air traffic or light from large metropolitan areas, there is a minimum of light and radio interference. And then there is the intense hush that envelops the area, reached after you travel many glorious miles on a winding road past lots of waterfalls and through dense forests.

"I could not get over the quiet," said Site Administrator Jim Powers, who comes from the Philadelphia area.

"I used to vacation up in this area, so now, getting to live here is a real blessing. To be surrounded by nature and focus on the stars - how calming.

"What more is there, than to look for answers to the evolution and meaning of life in the woods, with nothing but the sound of your thoughts to listen to?"
         
Staff at PARI welcome volunteers and need donations of equipment, time and money to continue their new mission. To find out ways you can get involved, visit their Web site at HTTP://PARI.EDU

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