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Jordan Hall installs ‘cutting-edge’ telescope

Lesley Stevenson | Thursday, October 3, 2013


The new Sarah L. Krizmanich telescope atop Notre Dame’s Jordan Hall of Science will soon bring planets and stars from galaxies far, far away within reach of Notre Dame students and faculty members, physics professor Peter Garnavich said.

“It’s pretty impressive, and I’ve seen a lot of telescopes,” Garnavich said. “I’ve been, as many of us have been, waiting for a long time for this telescope. It’s very exciting now that it’s arrived, and it hasn’t disappointed.”

The latest addition to Jordan Hall’s cutting-edge technology will allow physics professors and undergraduates alike to investigate distant stars and galaxies with unprecedented ease and clarity, associate physics professor Chris Howk said.

“The idea is that undergraduates who are taking advanced astrophysics courses will be able to come up here and do projects with this telescope,” Howk said. “Upper-level undergraduates, mostly physics majors, who are doing their own observational experiments will be able to come up here and use this.”

Computer scientists and other non-physics majors could also benefit from the telescope and from the experience of using the device, Garnavich said.

“We are providing a telescope which is very much like the cutting-edge professional telescopes around the world,” he said. “In fact, this is a professional telescope. And the goal really is to be able to train our students to use the bigger telescopes.

“We hope to have a set up so that almost anyone that has some experience with telescopes can use it.”

Howk said three light-collecting mirrors make up the telescope and work collectively to focus and direct the light from distant stars. That light creates an image astronomers can view either with an eyepiece or a digital camera.

“The primary mirror is 32 inches across, and that makes it one of the biggest in the whole state, certainly one of the biggest on a campus in the state,” Howk said. 

Garnavich said finding a telescope with a large primary mirror was a priority, even though the device had to be compact enough to fit in a 14-foot circular dome on the Jordan Hall rooftop.

“My goal was always to get the largest aperture telescope we could possibly afford,” he said. “The bigger, the better. More light-collecting area for the mirror means more stars you can see, fainter stars, more galaxies. It just opens up a lot more volume of the universe.”

A specialized image collector called a charge couple device (CCD) will be added to the telescope in the coming weeks, Garnavich said. 

“It’s sort of like a monster camera similar to the things that are in your cell phone and everything else,” Howk said. “What we want to do is be able to see with very low light and low noise.”

The CCD, along with wiring to the dome aperture that is still in the works, will also allow students and professors to control and look through the telescope remotely.

“In theory, we can be at home at three o’clock in the morning when the telescope frees up,” Garnavich said. “Then we can sit in our pajamas and observe, then close it up at the end of the night.”

Howk said the device, which was donated by the Krizmanich family, will give students and professors more freedom to test new ways of using telescopes and collecting data.

“The skies in South Bend aren’t necessarily known for their clarity, but the types of things you can do are ones where you either need to experiment, because you aren’t sure it’s going to work, or you need to have access to a part of the sky over a long period of time,” he said.

The physics department dedicated the telescope Sept. 20 and used it for the first time Friday, Howk said.

“We looked at what’s called a planetary nebula. It’s a little fuzzy ball of gas in most telescopes, but most telescopes are smaller than this,” Garnavich said. “When we looked at it, it was spectacular. It looked brighter and more distinct than I’ve ever seen it before with the naked eye through a telescope.”

Howk said the physics department hopes to inspire students to use the telescope for individual research. 

“The important thing is that ultimately this is really for the students,” Howk said. “For the students to be able to come out here and say ‘Wow I get to use this thing,’ and for it to be their telescope, that’s pretty powerful stuff.”