Calvin's observatory gets a new telescope for your viewing pleasure

by Phil Ammar
Staff Writer

Professor Larry Molnar shows off Calvin's spectacular 'scope.

Students may have noticed a large crane parked in front of the science building last Thursday. The crane marked the arrival of a new telescope that many in the physics and astronomy department were anticipating for a long time. The telescope, funded by a $130,000 grant by the National Science Foundation and a matching grant from Calvin College, was ordered in May and finally made its appearance last week. The telescope, custom made by Optical Guidance Systems, will be a major boon to the astronomy program at Calvin.

This new telescope will be fully automatic and provide a number of benefits that the old telescope could never offer. The fully automatic nature of the telescope will make it more efficient, as well as providing better data. This efficiency will enable a much larger range of applications that could only have been dreamt about before. The time gained by not having to search for objects in the sky will increase the amount of science being done by more than an order of magnitude.

“Students will be able to make better use of the sky by not having to sit around half an hour waiting for the observer to find the object,” said Professor Larry Molnar, the observatory director.

Professor Deborah Haarsma, Calvin’s other astronomer, is also excited about the new telescopes. “Everybody in introductory astronomy classes will have access to state-of-the-art equipment,” she said.

By next year, another telescope will be delivered to Rehoboth, New Mexico. This telescope, also covered under the grant will be controlled via the Internet by Calvin students. The New Mexico location provides a site that is clear of the weather that covers the Grand Rapids skies. The spot picked is on par with many of the national observatories in terms of number of clear days and the quality of sight. This second telescope, with the number of clear days, will further increase the viewing time by an order of magnitude. The best aspect of having this telescope is that its use will be dedicated to Calvin. In terms of time available to students, these telescopes will be better than those at the larger professional observatories. This extra time will enable students to carry out projects that require many nights of observing, such as monitoring variable stars or searching for asteroids and comets.

The emphasis on bringing astronomy to the public is one of the driving forces behind the purchase of the new telescopes. The grant also provides funding for instructing high school physics teachers in programming the telescope. These teachers will then be enabled to bring the wonders of the universe straight to their classrooms.

“This will give high school students a taste of real astronomy,” said Haarsma. “Nurturing an interest in science is very important from the earliest stage possible.”

The new telescope is currently being calibrated over the next few clear nights. The alignment is necessary for proper telescope use according to Molnar. “We need to align the axis of the telescope to within a gnat’s eyelash of the earth’s axis,” he said. “The benefit of that allows us to take very long exposures without any smearing.”

Taking longer exposures is very important for purposes of astrophotography. Because many of the most amazing things in the universe are so dim, long exposures are needed to get the best pictures.

The old telescope could only take 25-second exposures at the maximum without smearing. Some projects on the old telescope included processing 200-plus, 25-second images, when the new telescope could conceivably take exposures an entire night long.

The telescope in New Mexico will be dedicated to research use and the telescope at Calvin will be used for both research and for public use. The automatic nature of the telescopes will allow them to be computer controlled. This will be a vast difference over the way things were done previously. Now an observer will be able to program the computer the day before, enter in whatever the night’s observing is going to be and then go to bed, where before the telescope use required its users to be nocturnal.

“Previously a night of observing meant skipping classes the next day, so you could sleep,” said Andrew Vanden Heuvel, a junior Physics major. “Now it’ll be a cinch.”

Some people, however, feel that they may be missing out.

“This will take the fun and challenge out of finding faint objects,” said Chris Walker, a sophomore physics major. “I admit however that a lot more stuff will be able to be done.”

The previous telescope, a 30-year-old 16-inch Celestron, found a new home in a planetarium in New York. The observatory committee, composed of several physics department faculty and staff, wanted to keep the old telescope in a role that served the public. Its new location will be able to inspire children and cultivate an interest in the sciences.

The observatory reopened this week in the hope of getting the new telescope online within a few days. For now, visitors are welcome to come up when there is a clear night during the week and use the smaller telescopes on the deck.

After the telescope is calibrated, Molnar and Haarsma will train the student observers on its use and the observatory will regain full functionality. The observatory has maintained a Web site at

Those involved with the observatory urge everybody to "take advantage of some of the great opportunities that exist at Calvin."

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