UTSA student astronomers use world's largest optical, infrared telescope

UTSA students in Spain
giant telescope in Spain

Top photo: UTSA students and research at telescope control room -- From left are Laura McMaster, Lindsay Fuller, Enrique Lopez-Rodriguez and Carlos Alvarez
Bottom photo: 10.4-meter Gran Telescopio Canarias at La Palma, Spain

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(Sept. 6, 2013) -- In July, the biggest optical/infrared telescope in the world was put in the hands of UTSA astronomers. For a week, two graduate students, Laura McMaster and Lindsay Fuller, and post-doctoral researcher Enrique Lopez-Rodriguez from the UTSA Department of Physics and Astronomy performed astronomical observations at the 10.4-meter Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) at La Palma in the Canary Islands, Spain.

Their goal was to observe the central regions of active galaxies that have a supermassive black hole at their center to advance their research about the structure and evolution of the objects.

The GTC is at the top of La Palma, one of the steepest islands in the world at 7,438 feet above sea level. At that altitude, the clouds are almost always below the telescope allowing for stable and clear skies. These conditions are excellent for using the telescope's infrared instrument called CanariCam. UTSA Assistant Professor Christopher Packham was one of the lead scientists in its development.

"Since relatively few 10-meter class telescopes exist, it is essential for students to travel there in order to train and collect data. This will be only one of many observing trips for them," said Lopez-Rodriguez.

McMaster and Fuller were instructed in how to perform astronomical observations by Lopez-Rodriguez and the GTC support astronomers. For the students, it was a quick introduction to the operation of scientific equipment and data analysis. "While there, we were able to observe the center of the Milky Way as well as several other distant galaxies," McMaster said.

Observations in infrared light, a form of light with a longer wavelength than visible light, are used by astronomers to better study dusty areas in galaxies. In the infrared, the dusty clouds appear bright, instead of dark and obscure as they do in visible light.

The trip was not just an observational training for the students but also an introduction to the collaborative format that the field of astronomy encourages. By creating partnerships, UTSA has the ability to enhance its scientific productivity using world-class facilities.

"The trip was literally on-the-job training, which just happened to be at the largest optical-infrared facility available in the world," said McMaster.