Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010
On Jan. 7, four hundred years to the day Galileo first spotted the moons of Jupiter through his homemade spyglass, Aggie astronomy enthusiasts headed to the roof of Utah State University’s Science Engineering Research building and marveled at the same celestial wonders. But USU’s stargazers had a distinct advantage. Their view-finding instrument was the Physics Department’s new state-of-the-art 20-inch reflecting telescope on a computerized mount that yields clear, crisp images of faraway planets and constellations.
“We held a ‘first light’ celebration to thank the USU Facilities crew who built the new USU Observatory and to commemorate the anniversary of Galileo’s sightings,” says James Coburn, Physics Department teaching laboratory supervisor and USUO coordinator.
‘First Light’ refers to an observatory dome’s inaugural opening when its telescope first gathers light and offers its initial cosmic image.
USU Facilities employee Mike McBride, who supervised construction of the observatory, says his 7-year-old daughter woke up the morning after the celebration talking about “how cool” it was and ready to make a beeline for her school library to check out a book on stars.
“It really sparked her interest and I was moved that my family and I were invited to be among the first to try out the new observatory,” he says. “It’s an experience my family and I will always remember.”
Thanks to McBride and his team, Coburn says, the new observatory was completed under budget, which allowed the Physics Department to move ahead with the purchase of a PlaneWave Instruments telescope without seeking outside funding.
“We’re very grateful to Stanley Kane, director of USU Facilities Operations, along with Mike and his colleagues Phil Bankhead and Bryan Bingham,” Coburn says. “None of us had attempted the design and construction of this kind of project before.”
Construction of the observatory, which sits atop the SER building [http://www.usu.edu/map/index.cfm?id=30], began in May 2009 and was completed within two months. The facility’s unique, half-circle design features a telescope mounting pedestal anchored in an interior cement column that extends to the building’s footings. A circular staircase leads to the telescope gallery topped with a metal dome measuring 16.5 feet in diameter.
The new facility is a major step forward from USU’s old observatory near Romney Stadium, which often competed unsuccessfully with bright stadium lights for views of the night sky. The used dome, donated by a supporter in California and hauled to Logan by students in the early 1970s, rotated on golf balls used as makeshift bearings.
Coburn says the Physics Department considered a number of locations for the new observatory, which has been more than 15 years in the planning, saving of funds and making.
“We looked at several locations more remote than the SER building, but finally opted for the site most accessible to students,” he says. “We added to the height of walls around the roof of the building to block light and increase safety.”
Students, first and foremost, Coburn says, are the intended beneficiaries of the new facility. Astronomy class participants — more than 700 Aggies took astronomy classes during the 2009 fall semester — will have the opportunity to use the telescope, as well as students pursuing space research projects. Future plans call for the attachment of a computer system that will enable faculty at USU’s regional campuses to control the facility remotely and allow even more Aggies to enjoy a window to the cosmos.
The Physics Department also plans public outreach programs, starting with an open house to be announced in a few months. For the time being, Coburn and colleagues are carefully calibrating the telescope, testing its computer software and preparing for an enthusiastic crush of visitors.
“Astronomers are fond of saying, ‘A night a telescope isn’t in use is a wasted night,’” says Shane Larson, assistant professor of physics who is coordinating student research projects using the new facility. “We have active researchers looking at lunar surface imaging, measuring the brightness of variable and binary stars and searching for unknown asteroids that cross the Earth’s orbit. This is a phenomenal opportunity for USU and the Cache Valley community.”