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Observatory open house marks official completion

Published: Monday, October 11, 2010

Updated: Monday, October 11, 2010 13:10

Observatory open house 101110

THE USU OBSERVATORY is home to a 20-inch telescope which Provost Raymond Coward said will welcome more opportunities for the community to become involved on campus. ARMEN HOVSEPYAN photo

The USU physics department hosted an open house last Friday to commemorate the opening of the recently completed USU Observatory. The observatory houses a 20-inch PlaneWave Instruments telescope in a 16.5-foot diameter dome placed on top of the SER Building near the Merrill-Cazier Library.

    "It is wonderful for the university to see the dream that we have always thought about happening on campus," said Provost Ray Coward, who spoke at the open house.  "This wonderful telescope and wonderful facility create opportunities for our community partners, as well as our students, as well as our faculty, to do new and exciting things on our campus."

    Construction started on the observatory last year and was finished in roughly two months, a "record time," said Dean of Science James MacMahon.

    "The USU Facilities people gave us a bargain construction plan," MacMahon said.  "In fact, it was so good that the money we had was sufficient to pay for the telescope after they did the work. The whole thing was very professional."

    Roughly 200 people were in attendance as the open house began and more trickled in throughout the evening. Guests were allowed to go to the top of the SER building to see the observatory look at the sky through the telescope.

    Despite the heavy rain clouds that obstructed the telescope's view, many attendees expressed excitement about the device.

    Kenneth Benyon, a junior in the science education program, said, "Apart from the lower-level astronomy classes and general physics classes that could take field trips there, the professors at Utah State are really good about helping undergrad and graduate students be involved in research." 

    Benyon said instruments such as the telescope, the green beam, and the new sodium laser are resources for students and professors to do research together.

    "Anyone interested in science could approach the professors and they could find research for them," he said.   

    One of the challenges facing coordinators was finding a place close to campus that would not be hampered by light pollution. The team considered building the observatory on farmland far away from city lights, but said it would be too far away for students. They resolved the problem by building a six-foot wall around the top of the SER building to shield the observatory from campus lights.

    "We built it in the middle of campus so that the students could get here, and we try to accommodate for the lights," said James Coburn, physics professor and Observatory coordinator.

    Assistant Professor Shane Larsen said in his opening remarks that astronomy was one of the only sciences that both academics and non-academics participate in regularly. 

    "It's enabled by instruments like this one," he said.

    "The telescope we have is a thoroughly modern telescope, it's computerized, it's very large, but it's not that different than the ones all of you have at homes in your closets," he said.

    "It's really a resource that draws all of us together. It helps you to see what we do here at USU and it enables us to demonstrate what it is that we're trying to do," he said.

    There are about 800 students enrolled in astronomy classes this semester.

    "This is from the interest from students, not even scientists, who want to take a science class that broadens their horizons. We now have a program that can take us well into the future," MacMahon said.

    He said the next step for the program will be adding a computer system to the telescope which will enable teams to use the observatory from a distance.

    "The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe" and "Introductory Physics" are general education classes that fulfill the breadth physical science requirement.

    The observatory is open for student use every Monday through Thursday.



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