Undergraduates Use Telescope to Search for Planets

Are we alone in the universe? It’s perhaps the most profound question we as humans ask and a new joint program among The University of Montana, California Institute of Technology and Pennsylvania State University will bring us one step closer to answering that question.

Dubbed MINERVA in a nod to the Roman goddess of wisdom, the project will be an array of robotic telescopes designed specifically for the study of exoplanets, and is the first dedicated observatory with sufficient precision to find earthlike planets. If you don’t know what an exoplanet is, it’s probably because you’re not an astrophysicist like Nate McCrady, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UM and one of the driving forces behind MINERVA.

"An exoplanet is an extrasolar planet—a planet outside of our solar system. More than 700 have been discovered to date, many of them potential candidates for sustaining life," McCrady says.

That, in its essence, is what makes the MINERVA program such a cutting edge venture. The innovative telescope array, mounted atop Palomar Mountain in California, will be able to detect evidence of exoplanets orbiting nearby stars. Students at all three participating institutions will be able to control the telescope array from their respective campus and perform research.

It’s a prospect that excites current students such as Erica Hadden, a senior physics major. "MINERVA will be a huge opportunity for undergraduates, especially at a public university," Hadden says. "Students who get to participate in that kind of research will look more appealing to top-tier graduate programs, so this will be a huge boost to our undergraduate admissions in coming years."

MINERVA will put the Department of Physics and Astronomy, if you’ll pardon the pun, light years ahead of its current technology. "When I came here," McCrady says, "one of my goals was to help develop a modern research facility for faculty, and for student training. The telescope we currently use was purchased in the 1960s or 1970s, and can’t be used for research. But MINERVA is a transforming opportunity, a complete game changer that lets us do research with top institutions using top equipment."

Even better is the return on investment the project will bring. "Think of this as venture capital and seed funding," says McCrady. "We need public and private support that can set us up to be competitive for existing funding, and we’re raising $250,000 to complete our part of the program. But the total leverage is ten times that: we’ll be getting $2.5 million in equipment for that $250,000 investment. And, we’ll be able to compete for NASA grants and other grants to bring more research money to UM."

That kind of opportunity is building a groundswell of support, as Hadden noted. She’s part of the team giving presentations about the program to build support. "We presented to the Dean’s Advisory Board, and I gave a student perspective on what it will bring to the undergraduate program here. I’ve never presented anything that fascinates people across the board. Whenever I tell people about the project, they just start asking, ‘What can I do to help?’"

McCrady notes the fundraising is progressing on several fronts. "First is grant support. There’s been a decline in public support, as well as public grant money available— everyone is competing for an increasingly smaller pot of funds. But we want to support ourselves through grant money, and are pursuing those angles. "We’re also looking for private support. Funding through foundations. Funding through private individuals, particularly UM alumni, people who want to see this institution have these opportunities available."

In the end, it may begin to answer that question that humanity has always asked. "We have this innate desire to wonder," Hadden says. "And with this project, we’re exploring that innate question about the possibility of life on other planets, in other solar systems. When people hear about that, the awe is automatically there."

To support fundraising efforts for MINERVA, or learn more, contact Kelley Willett, senior director of development and alumni relations, at 406.243.2646 or kelley.willett@mso.umt.edu.