The Telescope Saga: One Step Closer

The Embry-Riddle Physics Department has been teasing astronomy-minded students with rumors of a 1-meter telescope for over a year now, and finally, those students can rest easy.  The telescope is officially operable but still in
its calibration phase.

Although the process began with the arrival of the telescope mount in Feb 2014, the summer months brought with them the next phase of installation: placing the mirror.  The 1-meter diameter mirror experienced some delays in fabrication throughout the spring semester, making the astronomers on campus anxious with suspense.  It finally arrived on June 11, with the installation happening in the
week that followed.

Embry-Riddle’s resident telescope engineer, Damon Burke, uses the affectionate pet-name “Big Bertha” to refer to the 1-meter telescope, although it is yet to be formally named.  “Bertha” consists of both the 1-meter primary mirror and a 14.75” secondary mirror, making it the largest telescope south of Virginia and east of Texas.  Both mirrors are hyperbolic, which is the geometric choice of many large telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope.

Of course, a telescope of this dignity has to go through some extensive calibrations before it can get to work.  Dr. Ted von Hippel, a professor on campus and an astronomer who has been involved in commissioning some of the world’s mightiest telescopes, holds some insight into the typical processes that must be followed through for large telescopes. Dr. von Hippel believes that there are two goals that drive the calibration process: “Objective one is to make the observing efficiency as high as possible and objective two is to be able to make sure that you get science
quality data out.”  

Before even installing the mirrors, the telescope’s mount must be aligned with true north, which will make tracking objects possible and moving the telescope to celestial objects more efficient.  After the mirrors have been installed, the next big step is collimation. Good collimation, or having the secondary mirror perfectly centered over the primary mirror, can be difficult and may take many nights to accomplish.  It is important, however, because collimation can affect the quality of your data.  

An additional alignment is necessary if the telescope has a smaller telescope, known as a piggyback, attached to it. Embry-Riddle’s 1-meter can be seen with as many as four extra scopes aligned to the same optical axis
as the primary. 

As with most research-quality instruments, a university-sized telescope is a complex system of hardware and software and special attachments with their own hardware and software considerations. Aligning the optics and making adjustments to software and cameras will be an ongoing process.  Adjustments will continue to be made as errors are found through continued use
of the telescope.

As an observational astronomy professor, Dr. von Hippel is excited about what this new telescope will mean for his students, “What I expect is that students will be able to take on more challenging projects. They’ll either be able to push for higher signal-to-noise or more stability or fainter objects.”  Knowing the enthusiasm that Embry-Riddle students have for science and hard work, his students will be just as excited to
meet the challenge.

Not only are the students on campus going to benefit from this new installation, but also members of the local community who are looking to learn more
about the stars.  

With the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts & Sciences installing a brand new planetarium and the local City Island Library investing in a 10-inch telescope for educational programs, an “astronomy hub” seems to be growing in the Daytona Beach area, according to Dr. Jason Aufdenberg, another professor of
astronomy on campus.

Aufdenberg attests, “One of the reasons for putting our 1-meter telescope on campus, and not in a darker, drier location, is that [approximately] 50% of the people in Volusia County live within 10 miles of the observatory…My hope is that the new observatory can be an aid to science education at all levels.”

This fall semester, expect to be invited to an Astronomy Open House, during which the Amateur Astronomy Club in collaboration with the Physics Department have planned to open their doors and let inquiring minds enjoy the curiosities of our universe.  The excitement will include a close-up with “Big Bertha” and the Physics Department’s fleet of 6-inch refractors, a walking tour of the Solar System and a hands-on experience with the gravity well simulator. Those interested in astronomy may also be excited to learn more about the new Astronomy and Astrophysics degree program that will be offered
starting Fall 2014. 

Margaret Gallant is a junior in Engineering Physics and the newest elected President of the Amateur Astronomy Club at Embry-Riddle.  The Amateur Astronomy Club will be having their first interest meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 10 at 8:00 p.m. in
COAS Room 501.

—Maraget Gallant

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