By: IZZA JATALA
I walk up five flights of stairs inside Northside Hall before I get to a set of gray double doors which lead to a stone gravel rooftop with a 12-and-a-half foot diameter by 13-foot tall silver observatory.
The view of IU South Bend campus and the surrounding city was quite a sight as the sun had just set on that day last Wednesday, Nov. 20.
However, it’s nothing compared to the views in space that will be seen using the new telescope housed inside the silver dome. Inside, there sits the towering structure of the now fully-assembled telescope.
It has a 16-inch diameter mirror and, when pointed at the night sky, gathers light and bends it into focus. Then the small eye piece on the opposite end magnifies the image to a size you can view with your eyes.
Jerry Hinnefeld, professor of physics and astronomy at IU South Bend, agreed to give the tour and explain the process of using the observatory.
He said a handful of others from his department and himself saw their first glimpse into the starry sky using the new telescope earlier this month.
“It was a Saturday night, skies were clear, I came in with a few other people. The very first thing to do was to use the computer to tell the mount to point to a particular star. We chose the star Altair,” he said as he climbed a short set of stairs to the controls of the dome. Then he asked me to turn on the power switch located next to the observatory entrance.
“I was very pleased when I looked through the eye piece for the first time that night and saw the bright star in the field of view,” Hinnefeld said. He then pressed the dome controls.
The dome swiveled left, Hinnefeld pressed another control, and a section of the roof opened to the sky.
He climbed back down and opened his laptop to map out coordinates to view a star.
“This is a celestial map, a sky chart,” he said, pointing at the opened program on his laptop. “The yellow dot shows where the telescope is pointed at the moment.”
Hinnefeld clicked on a star on the map. A dialog box popped up indicating the star he selected: Vega. The telescope moved to the accurate position for viewing.
There it is. I look though the eye piece and see a bright star millions of miles away magnified for my eyes to view it.
Hinnefeld said with this new telescope, he hopes to carry out different projects for students to use the observatory. He said they’ll be able to track objects, do light curve measurements, and collect and analyze spectra, among other uses.
He said they have a spectrograph CCD camera that can be mounted to the telescope. It’s a device that can produce a graph of the intensity of light as a function of color or wavelength, and can be used to classify stars.
“The spectra will be collected from the CCD camera then stored on to the computer to analyze,” Hinnefeld said.
He talked about eventually hosting a viewing night for the community in which they would also bring up the department’s three 8-inch diameter telescopes as well.
The rooftop has about 4-foot-tall rails all along the side, making it relatively safe for most spectators.
“I’m very excited about it all, and about establishing a routine as we are in the beginning stages of operations,” Hinnefeld said. “There will be tweaks made to the telescope as we notice areas that need to be improved. We’re still breaking it in and figuring it all out.”
Hinnefeld said it will soon be possible to incorporate observational exercises for courses in astronomy.
“The spectroscopy projects and other projects with the telescope would be great experience for student in this field of study,” he said. “It’s my hope that a couple of times throughout the semester students will get the opportunity to come up here and do some observing. I’d also like to get several people, students, trained to operate it.”
Hinnefeld said he is excited to see students use the observatory and he reflected on when he was an undergraduate himself using an observatory for the first time.
“When I was in college in Hanover, they had an observatory and telescope that dated to the 1890s. I went up there a number of times and just loved it. In fact, the first time being in that dome, seeing the shutter open, and seeing the field of stars above was pretty spectacular.”
Now he can offer a similar experience to students at IU South Bend.
“I would be extremely happy if this telescope could be used on every clear night,” Hinnefeld said as he looked up at the sky through the opened shutter of the observatory.