After over 40 years of service, the 16-inch telescope in the Hirsch Observatory has gotten a new lease on life. Through funding from the National Science Foundation, the work of Associate Professor Heidi Newberg ’87 and the Rensselaer Astrophysical Society, the Cassegranian telescope has been refurbished, and the observatory that houses it has been refitted with new computer-automated control equipment.
RPI has had an observatory on campus since 1942, when a 12-inch telescope was built and installed on campus in a 16-foot dome on the hill next to the Quad. When the CII was constructed, the observatory was moved, and it now rests on the roof of the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center.
According to Newberg, the telescope in the observatory today was originally owned by General Electric and then donated to the Institute in the 1970s, and it accompanied the observatory when it was moved from the Quad to the science center in the mid-1980s.
The telescope was due for some repairs. After its many years of use, “The electronics were showing wear, and there were lots of [electrical] shorts [in] the control paddles,” she said. Newberg, an RPI alumna from the class of 1987, returned to RPI in 1999 as a professor in physics after completing her dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley.
Approximately a year and a half ago, Newberg started looking for funding to repair and refurbish the observatory’s control system and telescope. The new control system was installed early in the fall, and that semester’s astronomy class was the first to be able to use the automated system. “The controls are state-of-the-art now. If you were to go to a national observatory, you’d see the kind of control system we have here,” said Newberg. The control system has been calibrated to take into account the rotation of the Earth, and is able to track stars as they move across the sky with great accuracy. In addition, the computerized system features a menu system to allow a user to easily find a celestial object and move the telescope to its position automatically. As an added bonus, Newberg said that the telescope can now be controlled from a warm room, “a feature that is very nice for cold winter nights.”
The optics for the telescope were re-aligned over the semester break just before Christmas, which was no easy feat, according to Newberg. There are a small number of companies and individuals that are skilled enough to work with the delicate calibrations required by these instruments, and most of them work on telescopes the world around.
Overall, the refurbishment cost $70,000, not including labor. Some questions were raised early as to whether the department should replace the telescope with a newer one, or refurbish the old one. According to Newberg, “I think we’re better off with the old one. It’s much more stable and sturdy, and that gives us more flexibility.” When attempting to put a camera on the end of a newer and smaller 16-inch telescope, it has trouble bearing the weight and tracking properly, she said, a problem not found with the bulkier telescope owned by the Institute.
To commemorate the newly refurbished observatory, the RAS will be holding a public open house. Because weather is unpredictable, however, not every night is suitable for viewing. Thus, the RAS will have the observatory open to all members of the Rensselaer community on every clear night from February 16–24 between 7 and 10 pm. The observatory also commonly holds public viewings every Friday evening from February through November from 8 to 11 pm, weather permitting.
Newberg recommends that anyone attending the viewings dress for the weather. “When you are in an observatory at night, it’s one of the coldest places on Earth,” she said. Still, students are highly encouraged to take the opportunity to use the observatory. “A lot of universities have observatories, but not a lot have the type of undergraduates that RPI has. RPI undergraduates are what will keep this observatory running,” concluded Newberg.
For more information about the RAS or the Hirsch Observatory, visit the RAS website at http://astro.union.rpi.edu/.