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The Middlebury Campus

College Upgrades the 24-Inch Telescope

By Toby Aicher

More than 400 people visited the observatory to watch the lunar eclipse. The eclipse coincided with a supermoon, a rare event that only happens once every twenty years. The roof deck telescopes were open and looked at Saturn, the moon and the Hercules globular cluster of stars – an ancient group of 300,000 stars estimated to be 11 billion years old. As the moon passed through the shadow of the earth and its light began to dim, the stars and the Milky Way began to shine brightly.

The crowd at the observatory demonstrates the continuing appeal of astronomy at Middlebury. It’s fun to gaze up at the gem-like twinkling stars, draw patterns in the sky, and to use the telescopes to see incredible clusters of stars, nebulae, and other stellar objects invisible to the naked eye. It’s also important to understand our origins and contemplate our place in the cosmos. Astronomy should be an integral part of a liberal arts education, and fortunately at Middlebury the discipline continues to grow. This year the College upgraded its 24-inch telescope, which is located in the Bihall observatory dome, and students formed a new space club.

The 24-inch telescope is the centerpiece of the observatory. It is used during public observation events and the labs of the Introduction to the Universe course. Physics majors also use it for research. Jonathan Kemp is the head of the College’s observatory and was in charge of implementing the telescope upgrades.

“These upgrades will substantially enhance our capabilities,” Kemp said. “This summer, over an accelerated schedule, we made four major types of upgrades. We upgraded the telescope itself, the dome, the scientific instrumentation, and re-aluminated the primary and secondary mirrors of the telescope.”

Most telescopes including the College’s have two main mirrors that work together to magnify light and direct it into the eye piece. The mirrors are made of glass and coated with a thin layer of aluminum. One of the main objectives of the upgrades was to clean the mirrors and re-coat them with aluminum.

“Basically the mirrors had never been re-aluminized,” Kemp said. “By definition of being exposed to the elements the surface optical components will slowly degrade, so it was time. Just by looking at the pictures and images we definitely have much more throughput with the mirror now.”

When they began the telescope upgrades they also discovered an unexpected interference.

“When we removed the mirror we found that there was a feather that had gotten stuck to the mirror, which was interesting,” Kemp said.
Kemp replaced the 15 year old CCD cameras used for imaging stellar objects with new cameras, updated the software, and added a remotely controlled cover to the telescope. Other small changes were made to the telescopes that facilitate the use of the telescope.

The 24-inch telescope will be available for physics majors to do senior research, and will give them an opportunity for hands on experience trouble-shooting professional telescopes. Although Assistant Professor of Physics Professor Glickman does research on Quasars, faint and distant black holes emitting light, and requires more powerful telescopes, Jonathan’s research focuses on cataclysmic variable stars.

“I think that’s something that students here will be able to get involved with at a greater degree, and students can produce publication quality results,” Jonathan said. “So it’s just a matter of finding the right science and the right targets suitable for this telescope. In this case we don’t have a large mirror size, but we do have a lot of access, which helps with variable star studies where you study timing. “

If students want to get involved in astronomy they can either take Professor Glickman’s Introduction to the Universe course or attend observatory events. This Friday, Oct. 9th, there will be an open house from 8:00-9:30 p.m. Students can also join the new Space Club on Campus.

Ben Belinski ’18.5, Haruna Takeda ’18, Roo Weed ’18.5 and Alex Wells ’18 started the space club this semester. The four are long-time space enthusiasts, and when they arrived at the College they noticed the lack of a student club devoted to space.

“We realized there wasn’t really any space club on campus and thought that was a niche that really needed to be filled,” Weed said. “There’s just not much of an outlet for space or astronomy, which is crazy because we have such an amazing facility for it. We decided we wanted to see more of it on Campus. People are really enthusiastic. That’s the best part. People are very supportive of it.”

The club’s plan is to be a platform for holding discussions and advertising events. They want to bring a greater awareness of astronomy to students and give an outlet to students enthusiastic about space. So far they’ve organized a trip to see the movie the Martian, and held a space table at the lunar eclipse event. They have many ideas for the future.

“We’re taking a low-commitment, less formal approach to it because we want to have a large audience, and the entire reason we started this club was for fun,” Belinski said. “It’s intended that people can drop in whenever they want to. We’re going to start a reading group so that people can talk about different space issues and mind-blowing concepts that people like to work through and discuss together.”

One of their projects is to get support for an astronomy major.

“No one believes students want this major,” Weed said. “So we’re going to try and use our email list to try and get support for a major at least as a first step to indicate that students are interested in a major.”

In addition to being fun, the students agreed astronomy is an important part of a liberal arts education.

“I think having a space club, having some sort of education about the cosmos, is really important. Every time I learn something new about astronomy it opens your perspective in a whole new way. What is so amazing to us is how little people know and understand about what is beyond our own narrow world. It’s so important, it’s maybe the most important thing,” Weed said.

The group hopes to gain official approval this fall. To sign up for the space club students can email the group at [email protected]

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