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West Desert observatory yielding impressive images


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WEST DESERT -- Spectacular new images of the universe have been released, and they were captured by a brand new observatory built for the University of Utah.

The first-class Willard L. Eccles Observatory is located on a remote mountaintop in the West Desert. You have to drive a steep, rough road to get there. It's almost 10,000 feet high, on the top of Frisco Peak near Milford.

The guts of it is a big reflecting telescope with a 32-inch mirror. Physicist Wayne Springer, who is also an associate professor at the University of Utah, is delighted to have its first image copied to his Blackberry.

"It's not a very well-known Galaxy, but it's pretty beautiful," Springer said.

It's a spiral galaxy so far away the light took 24 million years to reach Earth. Its dim light made a strikingly sharp image.

"I was ecstatic. I couldn't believe it until I, like, looked at it and did a few more images to make sure it wasn't a fluke," said Paul Ricketts, who works at the observatory.

Even though the mountaintop is extremely windy, astronomers have found through studies that it is the perfect spot for the observatory. They placed monitors on numerous mountaintops, pointed at the same star for a year and a half.

"By looking at the North Star and measuring how much it twinkles, you can characterize the properties of that particular site; how well you can see the universe from the particular side," said Springer.

Frisco Peak had less twinkling, which means the air above is relatively clear and unturbulent.

Now images of cosmic scenery are rolling in. Some are of interest to specialists; others, like the Horsehead Nebula, can be appreciated by anyone.

The telescope can be controlled remotely by Internet, so professors, college students and even school kids can enjoy it just as if the scope was in the classroom.

"Things are looking fantastic. The seeing conditions here rival that of the best in the world —- at least on the nights that we've looked," said Springer.

Most of the funding to build the observatory came from the Willard L. Eccles Foundation.

The University of Utah will celebrate the Eccles observatory Wednesday, Nov. 11, with a symposium and reception. It begins at 4 p.m. and will be held in the James Fletcher Building, Room 103. The public is invited to attend.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com

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John Hollenhorst

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