Adam Crain sits at the controls in the Henry Cox Remote Observing Center. He has the four-meter SOAR telescope at his fingertips. Computers, TV monitors, and other machines create the illusion that you are in the control room in Chile. From here, Crain can change the telescope’s coordinates, capture images of the sky, and control an instrument that breaks the light from these images into its component wavelengths.

This access is only possible after eighteen years of work on SOAR by many scientists. And Crain, who graduated from Carolina in December 2003 with a bachelor’s in physics, has been part of the team during the last four of those years, designing the software that enables researchers to access telescope images and data from remote locations.

My role was filling in the holes where software didn’t exist previously,” Crain says. Working with Gerald Cecil, professor of astrophysics, Crain designed a tool that compresses the size of the images captured by SOAR so the remote user receives them in a matter of seconds. “If we didn’t have a tool to do this kind of compression, we’d have to wait five minutes after the image was taken off the camera and put on the computer down there to get it,” Crain says. If an image shows that a desired object isn’t quite centered, the user can change the coordinates and take another picture immediately. Time is expensive on a world-class telescope.

Crain also wrote software that controls the Goodman Spectrograph, which attaches to the telescope. The spectrograph was built at Carolina under the direction of Chris Clemens, assistant professor of astrophysics and director of the Abraham Goodman Laboratory for Astronomical Instrumentation. SOAR passes an object’s light through the spectrograph, where gratings spread it out as a prism would. From the researcher’s remote computer, Crain’s software saves the image’s raw light data, called a spectral trace, for later comparison and analysis. Researchers can then determine properties of the star, including its material composition.

SOAR shaped much of Crain’s undergraduate career. “Every semester that I was here, I was working on some part of this project,” Crain says. As an assignment for a freshman seminar with Wayne Christiansen, professor of astronomy, Crain wrote a program in LabView, the programming language that controls SOAR’s software. Christiansen, impressed with Crain’s work, introduced him to Cecil, with whom he worked on the image-retrieval tool. When that was ready, Crain spent the summer in Chile, integrating his work with the rest of SOAR’s software systems. He began work with Clemens on the spectrograph the following year and then returned to Chile to help calibrate it and get his control software “to talk to other software down there,” he says.

SOAR will enable future undergraduates to have similar experiences. Physics and astronomy faculty members will take students to Chile for Burch Field Research Seminars this fall. Students will share in Carolina’s time on the telescope. They’ll help scientists and work in the control room in Chile, operate SOAR remotely from Chapel Hill, and work on future instrumentation. Currently five or six undergraduates work in the Goodman Lab, learning skills that will place them in high demand after college.

Students couldn’t have done this five years ago here,” Chris Clemens says. “A four-meter telescope doesn’t make you a major force in astronomy. But a facility for doing this technology, for training people to go out and do these things, makes you a major force. If you’re an undergraduate, this is not going to happen anywhere else.”

Michelle Coppedge was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.

Crain begins graduate work in scientific computing at Stanford University in fall 2004. The Henry Cox Remote Observing Center is named for alumnus and donor Henry Cox. A gift from alumnus Leonard Goodman in honor of his father Abraham funded the development of the Abraham Goodman Laboratory for Astronomical Instrumentation. Burch seminars are funded by a gift from alumnus Lucius Burch III.