Cal Poly shares $1M grant researching the origins of the solar system

Cal Poly and a Colorado university have received a $1 million collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation for a community astronomy project in rural areas along the Western United States.

The five-year grant, also awarded to the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., will fund telescopes and training in astronomy in more than 40 communities along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, as well as down the Colorado River, from the border of Canada to the border of Mexico.

A network of researchers including teachers, high school students and amateur astronomers will be measuring the sizes of Kuiper Belt Objects.

KBOs are large, icy bodies that orbit the sun in the outer space region beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Assessing the sizes of these objects will help the research team better understand their formation and composition and give insight into the origins of the solar system.

Cal Poly physics professor John Keller and planetary scientist Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute will lead the network in conducting the research of the KBOs, which can travel in space between the earth and stars, temporarily blocking the stars from the earth’s view, an astronomical event called an occultation.

The research of KBOs is relatively new in the history of planetary science, the researchers said.

“This is a piece of the solar system we’ve just begun to learn about,” Buie said. “We’ve just begun to understand the fundamental properties and study the surfaces (of KBOs). Any of this information is important to unlocking the origins of the solar system. It’s one of the least disturbed regions of the solar system and it could tell us a lot.”

The 40-site network is expected to be operational by April 2015 when the citizen astronomers can begin their measurements.

Cal Poly physics majors Andrew Parker and Jeralyn Gibbs are assisting with the project. A continuing need for a couple of Cal Poly student assistants will be ongoing, but the largest contingent of students will be high school students on the pathway of the project.

The project is in its second phase. Fourteen pilot communities, including Bishop, Hawthorne, Reno, and Cedarville, already have participated in the work as part of the Research and Education Collaborative Occultation Network.

The expanded range of community participants will include communities on a 1,200-mile stretch.

A disc-shaped ring called the Kuiper Best exists on the outer reaches of the solar system, which contains thousands of KBOs.

The objects were formed about 4.5 million years ago – about the same time as the solar system.

This fall, Keller and Buie are in the process of recruiting team members through trips to Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California.

“This project is an innovative and exciting opportunity for students and community members from across the Western U.S. to directly contribute to our understanding of the Kuiper Belt,” Keller said.

Those observing the KBOs can document stars blinking in and out of view — and the length of time the object blocks the starlight — can be used to determine its size.

Students from the Mineral County School District in Hawthorne, Nev., a pilot community, have been able to use the telescope there for educational purposes. The local high school offers an astronomy class and students have been able to use the telescope to view spectacles such as the rings of Saturn.