To enhance the research and study potential of our highly sought-after Aviation and Astronautical Science degrees, Capitol Technology University applied for a grant to support the construction of an on-campus space observatory. In January 2022, that grant was awarded by the Maryland Space Grant Consortium, and installation of the new ALPHA Observatory began. Now, students are able to work hands-on with state-of-the-art observatory equipment, study Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), and produce informative data that directly contributes to current NASA research, thus paving the way for their successful careers in this exciting field.
What is ALPHA?
The Asteroid Large aperture PHotometry exoplAnet transit (ALPHA) observatory is comprised of a complete NexDome system housing an 11-inch Celestron Optical Tube Assembly (OTA) mounted on an equational mount. It is located on-campus in an open field near the entrance of the university.
What Can ALPHA Do?
The ALPHA Observatory is capable of monitoring between 50 to 100 objects per night, including variable stars, exoplanet transits, and newly discovered type I and type II supernovae. It will continue NASA’s planetary defense mandate by performing observations of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) such as comets, meteoroids, and asteroids, to characterize their orbits and potential impacts to Earth.
How Does ALPHA Work?
The majority of NEO objects are undetectable by the naked eye and require a telescope with a large aperture to resolve the object. The ALPHA observatory uses an 11-inch Celestron telescope configured for F/2 observations mounted on an equatorial mount. The complete system, including the space telescope, cooled CMOS camera, computer networks, and weather monitoring is housed in a NexDome observatory structure. Observing NEOs requires the system to monitor a portion of the night sky by taking short 30-second exposures over 5-minute intervals. During this process, background objects such as stars and galaxies will not move against the sky, but foreground objects such as asteroids will move. By observing these movements, ALPHA is able to generate orbit predications, measure rotational periods, and measure the speed of each NEO object. Depending on the target, ALPHA can capture approximately 10 - 20 minutes’ worth of data before moving to the next object.
ALPHA references the Minor Planet Center (MPC), which provides ephemeris data for all discovered and/or unclassified NEO objects, to retrieve and send the latest positional data of known and recently discovered objects. After successfully observing and submitting positional data on over 17 objects to the MPC, ALPHA was provided with its official MPC observatory code: W58. This acknowledgment from MPC validates ALPHA's ability to track objects within tolerance and ALPHA officially began its nightly sky survey program.
How Do Students Use ALPHA?
Students use current research to plan observation targets and then load these plans into ALPHA. This plan will detail target position, exposure time, focus parameters, observation pause conditions and observation ending times. Once transferred to ALPHA and observations begin, ALPHA located and targets each object automatically. During observations, students have the ability to remote into ALPHA to monitor its status and retrieve data. The ALPHA observatory provides the AE program with a unique opportunity to contribute to scientific research and improve the overall understanding of NEO objects. Having access to real-world objects to perform orbit determination provides AE program students with invaluable experience that will benefit them not only in the classroom setting, but also with future employment opportunities.
Capitol Tech will be hosting opportunities for students, the public, and other interested parties to participate in their "Night with ALPHA" streaming events. Events will be announced on our social media and past recordings will be posted to our YouTube channel.
Schematics & Specifications
Follow us on social media for updates on upcoming events!
Past Events & Recordings
View our YouTube channel for full listing of recorded events.
Waxing Crescent Phase
This image of the moon was captured by ALPHA. The waxing crescent phase is when the illuminated side of the moon increases from 0.1% to 49.9%.
Last Quarter Phase
This image of the moon was captured by ALPHA. The last or third quarter phase is when the illuminated side of the moon is exactly 50% of the moon's surface.
Waning Crescent Phase
This image of the moon was captured by ALPHA. The waning crescent phase is when the illuminated side of the moon decreases from 49.9% to 0.1%. This phase lasts until it disappears from view during new moon phase.
Full Moon Phase
This image of the moon was captured by ALPHA. The full moon is when the sun and the moon are aligned on opposite sides of earth, and 100% of the moon's face is illuminated.
The ALPHA Observatory
The ALPHA Observatory offers students hands-on experience with space equipment, performing research that contributes to the study of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and current NASA and Minor Planet Center (MPC) research.
An inside view of ALPHA's dome and telescope.
Astronautical Engineering Professor Marcel Mabson with Summer Intern Julianna Reese posing with the newly constructed ALPHA.
An aerial view of ALPHA via drone.
Dusk Video Shoot
A nighttime view of ALPHA against the sunset sky during our campus tour video shoot.
A display of the Auto Observation Tool within ALPHA's software.
A display of the ALPHA Workstation tracking test with all screens shown.
A display of the Dome Control screen within ALPHA's software.
NEO object 2000NM Stacked Images
NEO object 2000NM (~2.6km in size) was recorded near its perihelion (closest approach to the sun) moving at a speed of 4.16 arc-minutes or 1.64 degrees per day. This photo shows stacked image recordings of the object's trajectory.
NEO object 2000NM
NEO object 2000NM (~2.6km in size) was recorded by ALPHA near its perihelion (closest approach to the sun) moving at a speed of 4.16 arc-minutes or 1.64 degrees per day.
The Great Hercules Cluster
M13: The Great Hercules Cluster, in the constellation Hercules. This final image comprises over 1.5 hours of total image integration, which was made from over 400 individual images over a 3.5-hour window.
The Owl Cluster
NGC-457 (The Owl Cluster), located in the constellation Cassiopeia and found within the Milky Way, which makes for a very dense star field. NGC-457 is a young cluster, only 21 million years old at 7900 light-years distance.
Comet C2017K2 at a distance of 270 million km from Earth. The comet is ~11 miles in size in an "outburst" state, or ejecting material from its icy core.
NEO object Cacus
On August 22, 2022, ALPHA broke its own record by successfully tracking NEO object Cacus (1.44km in diameter) moving at 7.6 arc-minutes with its closest approach to the sun occurring end of August.
ALPHA's First Supernova Event
Discovered on May 19, 2023, the M101_SN2023ixg Supernova image was captured by ALPHA in the Pinwheel Galaxy located 21 million light years from Earth. This is the first supernova event ALPHA has observed. In this .gif comparing the galaxy from ALPHA's commission activities last year, you can see the supernova towards the bottom left of the spiral arm. Due to the galaxy distance, we are seeing the explosion as it happened 21 million years ago.
ALPHA Article Collection
To read our collection of ALPHA articles, click below:
For more information about ALPHA, contact Professor Marcel Mabson at MAMabson@captechu.edu.