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University of Montana Research Team Looks to the Stars

Updated on February 26, 2015

“It’s captivating to the imagination to look up at a star and say ‘I know there is a planet there, and it might have liquid water,’”

~ Nate McCrady, astrophysicist at UM

Teachers and research students in the University of Montana department of physics and astronomy are beginning work this Spring on project Minerva with their new telescope, which was purchased with grant money they received from NASA in the summer of 2013. The observatory, dedicated to Minerva, is on Mt Hopkins in Arizona, and it will be the first national major observatory that Montana has ever taken part in.

Funding for Minerva was received two summers ago in the form of a grant from NASA. The grant totaled $1.125 million, and will fund this project for three to four years. UM is now one of four universities involved in the project, and this grant will go entirely toward UM’s costs.

Harvard, Pennsylvania State University and the University of New South Wales in Australia have already purchased their telescopes and begun testing them out as well. UM used a portion of the NASA grant money to purchase their new 0.7-meter telescope, which has already joined the other three telescopes.

Nate McCrady, Astrophysicist at UM
Nate McCrady, Astrophysicist at UM | Source

“We own that telescope,” said Daniel Reisenfeld, chair for the department of physics and astronomy, “we’re not just using it. We are in charge of it.”

Each of the four telescopes are owned independtly, but they will run together as part of the Minerva array. All four telescopes are currently at their permanent site at the Minerva observatory on Mt Hopkins in Arizona. UM’s telescope is still under construction, and the team will be testing out Harvard’s telescope first.

In addition to the telescopes, each of the four universities has also purchased a camera. UM’s camera was delivered on Wednesday, March 26 and will be tested out on Harvard’s telescope the week after spring break, April 7-11, said UM astrophysicist Nate McCrady. “It is ready to be logged into remotely.” A vital part of the Minerva array will be a spectrometer which will not arrive until this coming summer of 2014.

McCrady is the leader of UM’s Minerva research team, which also includes Daniel Reisenfeld and Adam Bolton, assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Utah. Students in the physics and astronomy program will also have access to the equipment.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for students to be involved in cutting edge science,” said McCrady. The UM research team has already expanded to include three students in the program.


Chantanelle “Chani” Nava, an astrophysics student, first began work on the project in the Spring of 2012. Her work has since expanded.

“Now my work has actual simulations to show what we might find,” said Nava. Her primary job for the project is to create simulations of what the team might find once they start looking for exoplanets, which are planets orbitting stars other than the sun.

“It was really exciting to first be invited, because it’s a collaboration of a lot of prestigious schools,” said Nava. “I was really excited to share what I have been working with.”

Nava has given several seminars on her findings and her process to finding them. In her seminars, she also gives an answer to the question ‘Why Minerva?’ she said. Nava has estimated that the project will uncover anywhere from 10 to 18 planets.

Nava also had the opportunity to travel with UM’s research team to Caltech in Pasadena California in January to meet with the group who had originally commissioned the project and to work on one of the telescopes before it had been moved to the observatory in Arizona.

Using Nava’s simulations, the team can begin looking for exoplanets. However, these planets will not be visible to the Minerva array, but rather their movement will be.

McCrady explains this process with an anology to figure skaters. “Imagine you have two ice skaters, one a large man, and the other a small five year old,” he said, “Now turn out the lights while the man is wearing a glow in the dark shirt. You can’t see the five-year old, but we know he is there from his movements. It’s called reflex motion.”

The stars are very bright and the planets are very dim, but the planets are detectable by the ‘wobble’ they create. The spectrometer, which will be delivered this summer, is the key ingredient to viewing this wobble effect.

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“It’s captivating to the imagination to look up at a star and say ‘I know there is a planet there, and it might have liquid water,’” said McCrady.

Through this project, the team hopes to detect the temperatures of the planets and whether or not they have liquid water. After results have been made, larger telescopes with better imaging quality can take a look at those same planets to determine if their might be life.

This observatory will be the first national major observatory that Montana has ever taken part in. “The notoriety it could bring us would be tremendous,” said Reisenfeld.

“It’s really important that the school recognizes what Minerva is doing for university,” said Nava, “It’s really putting us on the map.” McCrady and the other members of the team hope that the continuation of this project will bring in more students, and give students better research opportunities than they could find at nearby universities.

“What keeps most of us involved though, is the excitement of finding life on other planets,” said Reisenfeld.


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    • Alyssa Grey profile imageAUTHOR

      Alyssa Dillon 

      4 years ago from Missoula, MT

      Yes I agree with you, they are quite beautiful. The underlying beauty in them though, to me, is the neverending question: "What else is really out there?" An interesting thought that I hope we will someday find the answer to.

    • someonewhoknows profile image


      4 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      If,I lived somewhere where the stars could be seen more often at night I'd likely be more interested in astronomy. On the few occasions where the night sky was conducive to watching the stars at night I've found them quite beautiful to watch.


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