Seven months after astronomers said they'd found a 10th planet using a Caltech telescope, Sonoma State University plans to build a $1 million, 1-meter telescope in Mendocino County capable of similar discoveries.
"We will definitely be able to detect extra-solar planets orbiting other stars," said project leader Gordon Spear, a physics and astronomy professor who said the telescope would be unrivaled among CSU's Northern California facilities. "It will attract students and faculty who want to be here at SSU because of this instrument."
SSU must raise $1 million to pay for the instrument, which would have a diameter three times as large as the university's existing telescopes. The school announced Monday that it received a $700,000 matching grant to fund a new observatory off Highway 128 near Yorkville to house the telescope.
Relatives of the late Fred B. Galbreath, a marine insurance underwriter who once herded sheep on the Mendocino County pasturelands, have earmarked the seed money in honor of Galbreath's late wife, Jean. The observatory would become the sole building, except for two small barns, to occupy the 3,670-acre Galbreath Wildlands Preserve, a gift from the Fred B. Galbreath Trust to SSU in 2004.
"We live down here where it's foggy all the time and we don't get to gaze at the stars," said Pacific Grove resident Bob Johnson, who with his wife, Sue Galbreath Johnson, donated the money. "But up there at the ranch, they had a lot of clear nights. Sue's mother was quite an amateur astronomer. She could go out and name the constellations."
For 30 years, Sonoma State's on-campus observatory near Rohnert Park has permitted students, faculty and the public to explore the skies through its 10-inch and 14-inch telescopes. More recently, SSU astronomy students have been able to survey space remotely, via the California Academy of Sciences' 14-inch robotic telescope at the Pepperwood Preserve northeast of Windsor.
But locating a new, larger telescope at Galbreath's darker, higher elevations would further enhance researchers' capabilities, SSU officials said, because the objects it could detect would be unobscured by fog and the "light pollution" that has increasingly affected famed California telescopes at the South Bay's Lick Observatory and Palomar Observatory in San Diego County.
"When those telescopes were built, the light pollution wasn't a problem, with the cities being smaller," said SSU grad Ben Burress, an astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland. "Certainly, if you're trying to make good images of faint and distant objects, you want as dark a sky as possible."
It was at Palomar that a team of astronomers, using a 48-inch telescope, captured the first images of a new planet they dubbed "Xena" or 2003 UB313.
Spear and his students expect nothing less of the proposed Galbreath telescope.
"With a 1-meter telescope, there may be one near-Earth object a month that will be bright enough for us to see," Spear said. "Whereas with a 14-inch telescope, it may be only one a year."
Astronomy student Logan Hill welcomes the technological advances that have enabled him to pull up images of the night skies from Pepperwood on his laptop, without hunkering down at the campus' old observatory. Future students will gain similar remote access from the robotic Galbreath telescope, he said.
"It's a wonderful thing, instead of being out there until 2a.m. in 40-degree weather with the black widows," Hill said Monday.