Looking to the stars | TheUnion.com

Looking to the stars

Imagine gazing up at the Andromeda Galaxy, capturing a photograph and analyzing the shape and position of its stars, from the comfort of your favorite easy chair.

Sound like an out-of-this-world proposition?

By November, it won’t be.

That’s when astronomers and stargazers are expecting the completion of Sierra College’s new robotic observatory, which will allow 800 astronomy students at the Nevada County Campus to view constellations and study planetary formations viewed through the observatory’s telescope.

For now, the major components of the observatory are sitting in a warehouse on Sierra College’s Rocklin campus. The apparatus that will house the telescope at Sierra College is presently little more than a wood-framed dome anchored by a concrete slab near the campus’ child development center.

When the observatory is assembled, astronomy instructors are hoping for a world-class telescope and imaging system that rivals machines used at some of America’s more well-known planetariums.

By fall, students taking traditional and online classes can use the telescope during their lab times, remotely directing the telescope from their laptops to capture images in the sky. They’ll also be able to browse images taken from the telescope to assist them in their laboratory classes.

The robotic telescope, which will be entirely remote-controlled, is capable of taking dozens of images per minute, using light-sensitive cameras mounted on the device. The building housing the telescope contains a domed retractable roof that can be controlled with the click of a mouse. The telescope can be rotated to take different views of the evening sky.

“We’re moving into a modern technology era,” said Dave Kenyon, an astronomy professor at Sierra College’s Rocklin campus who helped lead the construction for the Nevada County Campus’ observatory. “To have this level of an observatory that we can manage and have as our own is a breakthrough.”

The telescope works by projecting light from the stars in the sky onto a 14-inch mirror. The image is then captured by a digital camera.

Those images can then be downloaded to a personal computer, and can be captured for as long as 60 minutes at time, said engineer Mark Biersack, whose Auburn firm, Apogee Instruments, is donating the telescope and mount at the observatory. Biersack has installed a smaller version of the remote observatory in the back yard of his own home.

In addition to the remote telescope, manual telescopes can be mounted on an adjacent 1,085-square-foot pad next to the 350-square-foot building housing the telescope.

The size of the mirror on the large telescope dictates the amount of light used. The wider the mirror, the greater the detail of the pictures captured by the telescope.

For some perspective, consider that the largest mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope, launched by NASA in 1990, measures 94 inches in diameter.

While the Hubble is chiefly concerned with photographing images of the furthest reaches of our galaxy, the robotic observatory at Sierra College will be concerned with finer details, such as the brightness and composition of stars and planets.

“When you’re working with smaller instruments, you’re going to be watching how a star behaves during a certain point in time,” Biersack said.

While astronomy classes at Sierra College will be the primary beneficiaries of the remote-controlled technology, Kenyon said there’s also a possibility to host community gatherings “under the stars” for shade-tree astronomers desiring to learn how the telescope can educate them about the world above them.

The observatory is being funded in part from the Sierra College Nevada County Coordinating Council, which donated $80,000 for the project. Of that, Rotary clubs of Nevada County contributed $20,000 and have been volunteering their time to help construct the project.

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