A new telescope, recently purchased by the University’s Astronomy Department, will replace the department’s older telescope that was irreparably damaged. The new telescope will be used for observational research, teaching, and outreach. Though the telescope was initially meant to be installed over spring break, the COVID-19 pandemic forced delays. Faculty hope that the telescope will be installed this summer.
The new telescope is a compact, 24-inch diameter telescope from the instrument manufacturer PlaneWave. It will be housed in the small dome atop Van Vleck Observatory, which was been home to a series of other telescopes operated by the University’s Astronomy Department.
This includes the earliest telescope owned by the University, purchased in 1836. The telescope—called the Wilbur Fisk Telescope, after the former professor and University president—was removed and placed on display in 1986. An additional half-a-century-year-old telescope is currently housed in one of the additional domes at the observatory and is used for research and student training. A radio telescope is also operated by astronomers at Wesleyan.
This new telescope will fill an important niche. After the retirement of the Wilbur Fisk Telescope, each of the subsequent telescopes housed in the Van Vleck dome eventually needed replacing. John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy Bill Herbst explained the progression of telescopes in that space over the years, beginning with the Fisk Telescope.
“[The Fisk Telescope] was replaced, sometime in the 1980s by a 10-inch telescope that had previously been owned by an amateur astronomer in Middletown,” Herbst wrote in an email to The Argus. “That telescope, in turn, was replaced by a 16-inch telescope that served us for many years and, now, the [new] 24-inch [diameter telescope]. This will be the first telescope in that location with the capability to perform professional quality research, and we are very excited to be getting it.”
Recently, the need for a new telescope became particularly potent. Associate Professor of Astronomy Seth Redfield explained that the 16-inch telescope formerly operated by the Astronomy Department became incapable of tracking or pointing effectively and subsequently was rendered mostly unusable. Thus, finding and purchasing a new telescope became both necessary, and exciting.
“We were so excited to find out…that we could purchase a telescope that large that’s 24 inches in diameter, and put it in that dome at the top of the stairs, and we could use it both for research and for the student observing and for the public outreach as well,” Redfield said. “An unfortunate event of something breaking led to us exploring this really exciting opportunity.”
The telescope, which cost a total of approximately $130,000, was purchased through a combination of funds provided by Astronomy Department faculty grants, the University, and gifts from alumni. Redfield explained that in recent years, the cost of high-quality telescopes has gone down, which allowed for this purchase.
This new telescope is optical, meaning it operates using visible light, rather than other wavelengths of light such as infrared. Optical is a favored wavelength range because visible light penetrates the earth’s atmosphere down to the surface, without much absorption by atmospheric molecules. The new telescope is also an imaging telescope, meaning it takes pictures. This is useful for a variety of research projects that University professors are currently engaged in, ranging from studying stars to galaxies.
“I’ll be able to search for new planets, and confirm and monitor ones that other people have discovered, and we follow up on,” Redfield explained. “Bill [Herbst]’s work will continue, where he can monitor very young stars, and observe their unique behavior, as a young star with a disk around it or something [like that]. [Associate Professor of the Practice of Astronomy] Roy [Kilgard] is interested in imaging nearby galaxies, and kind of looking for big structures that are really faint, but give us a clue to the history of the…interactions that galaxies have with each other. You need a big area to see them because they’re huge structures, but you also need a lot of time, because they’re faint, so you kind of build an image over many nights essentially. So it’s perfect for this kind of telescope.”
Kilgard spoke more specifically to his research interests, explaining that this new telescope, given its robotic capabilities, is especially well-tuned to capture transient events happening in the cosmos. Kilgard is interested in capturing visible light counterparts to detections of gravitational wave anomalies. This is applicable to events such as merging black holes or merging neutron stars. While black holes do not emit their own light, neutron stars—which are formed from the gravitational collapse of a star—do emit light. The new telescope will be able to capture these events in visible light, which can supplement gravitational wave detections. This can help researchers learn about the formation of some of the elements that make up the solar system.
Kilgard also explained that the University is in a good position for making these kinds of detections, because we fill a niche of the night sky.
“Where Wesleyan is situated, we’re so far east, because New England juts out from the East Coast, that we have this kind of almost unique slice of time that we own, after the sun has risen at the next further east observatory at the Canary Islands,” he explained. “And so we’re very well positioned to do follow up of sources in a particular slice of time.”
In addition to filling a variety of critical research needs, this telescope can also be operated remotely. Redfield explained that once some of the necessary equipment is retrofitted, students will be able to operate the telescope from their dorm rooms, or really from anywhere around the globe.
“[The new telescope] is capable of doing completely autonomous observations,” Redfield explained. “So that means it has a weather station, it assesses whether conditions are right, [and] it has an all-sky camera. It can tell, ‘Do I see stars?’ If the weather’s good and it sees stars, it can open the dome up itself, and orient itself, and start taking observations. If clouds come in or if it starts raining, it closes up. And if it clears up at 3 a.m. it’ll open back up again.”
This is especially useful for a school located on the East Coast of the U.S., which does not have the advantage of continuously clear skies that observatories in the Southwestern U.S. or Chile have. Since the telescope can operate itself given observing instructions, it will be able to take advantage of differing optimal conditions over the course of an evening, preventing astronomers from needing to stay awake until conditions are right.
As a consequence of this and the telescope’s additional functions, Herbst notes this telescope will be an excellent tool for teaching.
“It is right on campus, is obviously modern, using the latest technology, and can be operated in both manual and automatic modes,” he wrote. “It will be a great resource for incoming majors and even advanced non-majors who just want to learn more about the use of telescopes and the exploration of the sky.”
The telescope will also be used for outreach programs, which the Astronomy Department hosts regularly.
“This telescope will be an important component of our strong outreach program, in which thousands of visitors each year get to look through a telescope, see our lovely observatory and its exhibits, and hear a brief, understandable lecture on some recent advances in our knowledge of the universe,” Herbst wrote. “Astronomers at Wesleyan, both student and professional, love sharing their passion for the sky with interested members of the Wesleyan and Greater Hartford communities. This new telescope will add to the tools we have to make our science come alive for others.”
Redfield remains hopeful that the telescope will be installed this summer.
“I’m really hopeful that it’ll happen this summer,” he said. “We were going to have a First Light Party. And we still will, but it’ll just be a while.”