Hobart and William Smith Colleges are currently in the final stages of building the Richard S. Perkin Observatory, a teaching and outreach facility that will provide students with opportunities to observe and photograph objects trillions of miles from Earth. Located adjacent to the Katherine D. Elliott Studio Arts Center, the observatory will be ready for use in the spring 2016 semester.
“The questions we ask in astronomy have a good place in a liberal arts college,” explains Assistant Professor of Physics Leslie Hebb. “The interest for astronomy is strong and pure for a wide range of people, not just those with a scientific interest. It has the potential to teach students a variety of skills – not just asking where we come from, but also learning the scientific and data skills they need to be successful in the 21st century. It will be a huge benefit to all divisions of HWS.”
The Colleges received two institutional grants from The Perkin Fund to support the construction of the observatory. The facility is named in honor of Richard S. Perkin, co-founder of the Perkin-Elmer Corporation, which designed and engineered precision high-tech devices utilized in space satellites and U2 spy planes, including optical components for the Viking Lander on Mars and Hubble Space Telescope. In recognition of his many contributions to astronomy and science, Perkin has a lunar impact crater on the Moon named after him. Perkin was the grandfather of Christopher Perkin ’95, a trustee of the Perkin Fund who was instrumental in securing the grant.
The 38 by 24-square-foot facility includes both a temperature-controlled “warm room” that can be used year-round, as well as an observatory space where the telescope will be located. Eventually, Hebb hopes to create a space in Eaton Hall where the telescope can be controlled remotely.
Because changes in temperature can affect images taken by the telescope, the 17-inch corrected dall-kirkham astrograph telescope – which will be delivered over winter break – is located in a separate observatory space topped with a retractable rotating dome that exposes the area to outside temperatures. The telescope will have several detachable lenses for observing as well as a charge-coupled device (CCD) that can be attached to take images that will be sent to the computers in the “warm room.” The particular telescope chosen for the Richard S. Perkin Observatory can provide high-quality, large images free of particular kinds of distortion like coma and astigmatism. Hebb explains that this is useful for observing extrasolar planets that transit their host stars, which provides valuable insight into planets’ atmospheres.
With the opening of the Richard S. Perkin Observatory, Hebb will integrate the facility into the current curriculum, using the facility later this spring in her “Suns and Planets” introductory astronomy course, and also expand the Colleges’ offerings in astronomy in coming years.
“There’s only so much you can do when you’re showing PowerPoints and using pictures to explain concepts and point out astronomical objects,” Hebb says. “I think what I’m most excited for is to be able to provide this hands-on experience for students where I can teach them how to take data, analyze it, and talk about why that’s important.”
From stars to planetary nebula and even neighboring galaxies, students will be able to observe and collect data on a wide range of astronomical phenomena. Hebb says that by looking at something like planetary nebula – the end state of a star – for example, we can learn about what will happen when the sun eventually dies. The telescope can also produce images of other galaxies, which can help “piece together what our own galaxy looks like.”
The Richard S. Perkin Observatory also will host outreach nights, where the facility will be open to the public for programs run by Hebb and other staff and faculty members like astronomy enthusiast Doug Reilly, program coordinator for the Center for Global Education.
“Hopefully, with this telescope we can now provide a service to Geneva that will help foster an interest and love for astronomy in both adults and children in the community,” Hebb says. “What’s truly amazing about observing is that we’re not traveling to these places, we’re just collecting photons from stars that are trillions of miles away. Going to these places would take us tens of thousands of years, so even though we don’t have the opportunity to travel to them, we can learn about how stars and galaxies work.”