BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Dr. Mario Diaz, director of the Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy at UT-Rio Grande Valley, says Brownsville high school students will soon be able to learn astronomy in their classrooms by remotely accessing UTRGV telescopes that are tracking the stars.
The telescopes are at the UTRGV Dr. Cristina V. Torres Memorial Astronomical Observatory at Resaca de la Palma State Park in Olmito. The observatory is run by UTRGV’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. A dedication for the reactivated observatory took place on Saturday evening.
In an interview with RGV Public Radio 88 FM and the Rio Grande Guardian, Diaz said that through an internet connection, the observatory telescopes can be remotely commanded by UTRGV and Brownsville students and faculty. He went on to explain how the collaboration with Brownsville ISD came about. It happened, he said, thanks, in part to the use of telescopes in Chile, and a telescope operator in Argentina.
“I am not an astronomer by training myself, but a couple of years ago I developed an interest in astronomy. As a gravitational wave researcher, one of the things that interests me, is to look for optical counterparts, for the collision of neutron stars. We used telescopes in Chile to do this, my group here at the university. Because I needed to learn about astronomy I invited a telescope operator from the big telescope research operation in Argentina to come here. We taught a class in observational astronomy,” Diaz said.
“One of the beautiful things about this guy is that he is an amateur astronomer. Amateur astronomers are just as meticulous as professional astronomers but they are much more practical. Some of the things they do does not require sophisticated software. It turns out that with very simple software, that is freely available, you can run a telescope, you can observe and track asteroids, you can observe variable stars. So, I thought, we can use this to teach in high school.”
Diaz said the learning curve for high school teachers and students is not that steep.
“These kids, this generation, are using computers. We have some teachers that took my class and they love it. So, we presented the idea to Brownsville ISD and, starting this fall, all local high schools are going to be teaching astronomy. A hands-on class, using this astronomy. How about that?”
Diaz said that on June 15, several BISD teachers will be taught by two master teachers. “They will learn how to use the telescope, how to use the software, and they are going to be able to do this in their classroom. We are going to have the students learn astronomy, not by looking at books with pretty pictures. No, they are going to learn astronomy by doing astronomy.”
Diaz is thrilled at the prospect of high school students getting such hands-on experience. “A student sitting at a computer at high school, or at their house, is going to be able to log in and command the telescope here. They are going to be able to run it remotely.”
Asked how the astronomical observatory came about, Diaz said the project was a long-standing dream.
“When I came to work at UT-Brownsville, in 1996, I always thought we should have an astronomical observatory. We got some funding but there were a lot of things to get done. We had to get the dome. So, we built it originally on our campus. We inaugurated it, I think, in 2008. Then, with all the increased activity at the border, the lights, the vision, it was not a good place to have an observatory.”
Diaz said the idea to move the observatory to Olmito originated with a student.
“A student of mine told me a few years ago, there is this park, which was inaugurated in 2008. I asked the park people, would you like to host an observatory. I talked to the parks superintendent and he liked the idea. He ran it past his peers in Texas Parks & Wildlife. I convinced our administration and we started the process. We got the funding for the equipment and the pathway, etc., and here we are.”
Cristina V. Torres
The astronomical observatory is named for the late Dr. Cristina V. Torres, a Harlingen native who died of a heart attack at the age of 37 in 2015. Torres was a research assistant professor at the Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy at UTRGV’s legacy institution, UT-Brownsville. Her mother was at the dedication on Saturday evening.
Diaz said it was only right to rechristen the Nompuewenu Observatory as the UTRGV Dr. Cristina V. Torres Memorial Astronomical Observatory to commemorate the “courage, resilience and drive” of a former student of his.
“Cristina Torres was a student of mine when I first came to the Valley in 1996. She was interested in engineering but she took my physics class. When you are a physicist, you want to know how everything works. A machine, an engine, the universe. You want to know how it works. Cristina was very smart. She excelled. Later, I recruited her to come back to the Valley as a researcher for our gravitational wave work. She believed in reaching out into the community for the cause of science education. She was 37. It was 2015. She had a heart attack and passed away. She was a fighter for diversity. I have great admiration for her. A mentor can learn a lot from his or her mentee. She donated more than $10,000 in her will.”
Hyun-chul Lee, part of the astronomy faculty at UTRGV, was at the observatory on Saturday evening to answer questions from visitors.
Saturn is about 30 times further than the Earth from the Sun,” Lee told one family. In an interview with 88FM, Lee said a remote link to back to UTRGV will allow his students in Edinburg to use the telescopes.
“We are trying to build remote controllable robotic telescopes. So, once everything is working, as long as we have an Internet connection we can move the telescope, we can point the telescope to the target object, we can take the picture and analyze the picture and do the astronomy research. You will not need to be right on the site. As long as the sky is clear on the site we can control and move the telescope and do the astronomy research,” Lee said.
“This is an ideal place because there is no light in this area. At night it will be perfectly dark. As long as the sky is clear we can see all the faint stars and planets and galaxies very clearly. We can capture all the nice images and do the astronomy research.”
Reagan Faught, state parks director, was equally excited about having the observatory at Resaca de la Palma.
“A cornerstone of our work is education and interpretation. If we can affect the lives of the young and the old, we can build stewards for our natural resources, our night sky, conservation, and future parks supporters. This is going to provide many great experiences, particularly for young folks,” Faught said.
Carol Lutsinger, who teaches astronomy and has a regular column in a local newspaper, said Resaca de la Palma is one of the few dark night sites left in the Valley. “Everything is so light-polluted now. When you look into the sky, you do not see much,” she explained.
Lutsinger pointed out that the observatory has had several iterations. “It was at UTRGV by the resaca, where they built the new early college high school, which precluded any more astronomy from the observatory. It has been out here a few years, languishing, waiting to be re-established. Tonight is the grand opening and we are delighted.”
Asked if she liked her moniker, Stargazer, in the local paper, Lutsinger said: ‘I love sharing the night sky. It is my favorite thing to do.”
Asked who was paying for the observatory, Lutsinger said: “UTRGV is funding this and is collaborating with the State Park system. The State Park system has allowed them the land area. This is quite an exciting thing to be happening. The observatory will be available after hours, people will be manning the observatory, and there will be public viewing nights.There is a lot of stuff out there to see.”
Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez praised parents for bringing their children out “to enjoy God’s gifts to all of us.”
Martinez also paid tribute to Cristina Torres and her mother.
“It is people like Mom that inspire Cristina. To all the Moms and Dads, you are taking the time out to come out here and not only honor Cristina but allowing your children to enjoy what God has given us. Please, never forget what the people who came before us did before us. They allow us to be what we are today and who we are today,” Martinez said.
“This the beginning of a partnership. We just have to give each other a chance to appreciate one another. We have to shoot for the stars. We can never, ever, quit dreaming. Cristina never quit dreaming, so why should we? Never, ever, give up, it is only impossible until it becomes possible. There are many activities here. Enjoy, have a good time, and thank everyone of us for being here.”