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Ongoing Partnership With the U.S. Air Force Academy Brings new Astronomy Research and Educational Opportunities to the Grand Valley

When Colorado Mesa University Assistant Professor of Physics Catherine Whiting, PhD, recovered from the initial shock of a 200-plus-pound telescope hanging from a crane at the Grand Mesa Observatory, she got to work cleaning the mirror.

“If you already have to take the mirror off the telescope, you might as well make sure it’s free of dust,” Whiting said with a laugh. “You want to take care of as many of those parts as you can while it’s up in the air.”

In 2018, the Purdy Mesa Telescope joined the Falcon Telescope Network — a worldwide grouping of telescopes overseen by the Air Force Academy’s Department of Physics. The Academy works with educational partners like CMU to help maintain and operate seven domestic sites and another four across the globe, helping to track satellites and study everything from exoplanets to eclipses. At the end of the 2023 fall semester, the telescope at the Grand Mesa Observatory received upgrades, which involved hoisting the expensive equipment into the air while a new mount, camera and other parts were added.

Beyond the prestige of aiding the U.S. military, the modernizations will continue to provide practical opportunities for CMU students to study the cosmos. The Falcon Telescope Network unlocks the night sky not only in western Colorado but allows researchers to leverage the Air Force’s system to stargaze in the southern hemisphere with telescopes on the western and eastern coasts of Australia and another in Chile.

“You can get the entire sky in a way that’s impossible without viewing it from the southern hemisphere,” Whiting said. “Plus, when it’s daytime here, you can look in Germany. If there’s a star that has a planet transiting at a certain time, you can catch that on one of the telescopes. If the weather is bad here, but great somewhere else, there are a lot of factors like that. It’s just great to have that flexibility in terms of how you view and the type of opportunities it can create.”

Whiting added that once all the telescopes are fully upgraded and the network is entirely built out, there will be potential for researchers to simultaneously view the same astronomical occurrence from identical telescopes in different locations, opening a whole new way to confirm and observe science in action. The different locations also help researchers — whether academics interested in planetary movements or cadets monitoring satellites — to track motion more accurately across the sky.

The upgrades come at a time when stargazing is growing in popularity at CMU. Whiting is the faculty advisor of the Astronomy Club, which began in Fall 2022. The club has organized a handful of on-campus observing events, as well as backcountry trips to view the stars with less light pollution. They’ve also partnered with the Western Colorado Astronomy Club and the National Park Service for larger events, helping grow passion for astronomy in
the community.

“It’s been great,” Whiting said. “We’ve had an increasing number of members and we’ve been getting a lot of community interest during things like the partial eclipse (last October). We’ve been able to bring in more people or grab students who are just walking by and hopefully get them interested in what we’re doing.”


Written by Matt Meyer