To see or not to see: The installation of an astronomical observatory “above” campus

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Staff Writer

“I still remember opening up the dome in college and seeing all the stars,” said Professor of Physics Jerry Hinnefeld. “It really felt like asci-fi movie, and I’m really hoping for that same type of experience for my students.”

The department of physics at IU South Bend has been putting the installation of an astronomical rooftop observatory on the back burner for seven years now. But in the fall semester of 2011, the administration saw an enrollment surge related to the economic decline.

“There was now money available, ironically, for one-time projects,” said Hinnefeld. “So, a process was set up for faculty to submit ideas for various projects, which we did that. The committee head of these proposals selected the idea of the observatory for funding.”

The proposed idea of a rooftop observatory was given $70,000 for funding from the unbudgeted-tuition money. The faculty was able to then go ahead with their project plans and purchased a 16” reflecting telescope, a robotic mount from the company Software Bisque, an observatory dome and a wall cylinder for the dome to sit on manufactured by the company Ash Dome. With these items, the faculty is hiring contractors to install a cement slab on the south end of Northside’s four-story building hopefully in the next couple of months.

“The telescope was about $10,000, the robotic mount was about $15,000, the dome and wall cylinder were about $30,000. Then there were a few other small items as well, but right now the total cost we have spent is about $60,000,” said Hinnefeld.

When asked what the plans were with the last $10,000 budgeted money, he told me that it is going to be used for part of the cost of installation. The installation will be more than $10,000; however,Hinnefeld said that he is confident they will be able to locate other funding through the university.


These objects are expensive for a reason. The dome will provide protection against the weather for the telescope and also have a “shutter” that allows the telescope access to the night sky. The telescope focuses the light seen in the sky into an image and from there you can take a photograph of it, view it plainly with the naked eye, place the light in a spectrograph or a number of other things. The telescope is the central component although not the most expensive. The last object, the robotic mount is more specifically a “German equatorial mount” which rotates independently around an axis that points towards the North Star, and another axis that tilts down away from that.

“I keep wanting to talk about this robotic mount,” said Hinnefeld. “It is a very sophisticated mount. Often times, finding deep-space objects can be a challenge. However, once our telescope is installed and aligned, it won’t be much of a challenge.”

Hinnefeld explained that with this mount, you are able to tell it what to look at, and it will go there and the object will be there. He also feels though that there is an art lost in having that at one’s disposal because there is something to be said in identifying objects in relation to visible stars and searching that area for it.

“It’s a nice sense of accomplishment when you find it, and extremely frustrating when you don’t!” he said, laughing. “It’s a very mixed bag!”

With the mount, once you have it pointed on an object, it only needs to rotate that one axis that compensates for earth’s rotation automatically.

“The really amazing thing about it is that it has capability to point to as many objects as you want, locating them and centering them. Then you can say, ‘OK, the telescope is now pointing at this object,’ and you can do this for 20 objects and then the mount will know its location in relation to the objects found,” he said.

Hinnefeld explained the mount in detail, the importance and sophistication it brings to the telescope. Now, he is hopeful to get the project put together soon to get more use out of it.

Initially, the faculty thought that they would be able to put the dome together itself. However, the IU Bureaucracy and Architects decided they wanted contractors to be responsible for putting the observatory together.

Altogether, the observatory will weigh in at 300 pounds. Northside is roughly 40-years-old and is a post-tension building. This means that there are thin layers of concrete and to build on these would take careful skill with the delicate rooftop, which is why Hinnefeld and his colleagues were advised to seek contractors to put the observatory into place.

Astrophotography is said to be a fun experience and great use of the telescope, but also depends on how stable the roof is.

“It depends on if the roof is stable enough to take long enough exposures you need to image the deep space objects which are most interesting such as galaxies and nebula and so on,” said Hinnefeld.


As of right now, the IU Architectural Design Firm is preparing construction documents. When those are ready, the project will then be sent out for bids to various contractors. The dome will be put together hopefully this summer and later installed on the roof. There are many other projects going on during the summer at IUSB, so they are hopeful to get the project finished soon.

Hinnefeld is very excited about the observatory and reflected to when he was an undergraduate himself several times and the value he placed on having an observatory for students on campus and in his department.

“I expect it [the observatory] to be a draw and a strong selling point for the department and campus,” he said. “I know many physics majors that have interests in astronomy and we plan to use it for public outreach as well.”

Hinnefeld elaborated on how the telescope would be used as a tool for observatory and lab exercises. He is also excited about using it to show the community objects not visible to the human eye. For example, on a clear night, Jupiter and Saturn will be able to be seen very well.

“I am really hopeful for students to have the opportunity to be trained and use the observatory on their own and without faculty,” he said. “Especially on clear nights for the chance to observe objects deeper in space and on their own time.”

Hinnefeld said they have future plans to continue adding on to the telescope. He doesn’t plan on buying a larger telescope, but would eventually like to automate the dome. This would allow the dome and telescope to move from a “control room” without having to go to the roof constantly to make adjustments. This, however, would be another 20 or 30 grand. In the past, they purchased a spectroscope as an add-on to the telescope which will allow further research in the field of spectroscopy.

“This project will be extremely useful in terms of projects and more focused research,” he said. “You can read about spectra classifications, you can see the pictures of the classifications in textbooks. But it’s a proud moment for a student to collect that information themselves and a much different impact when you can collect spectrum yourself and do the analysis yourself.”

Hinnefeld and his colleagues are also in process of creating new classes and possibly an astronomy track in the physics department.

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