COLONIE – Siena College will soon be home to the largest telescope in the Capital District.
A crane hoisted the 2,600-pound dome onto the top of an observatory which sits on top of Roger Bacon Hall on Monday, July 2, that will eventually house a $210,000, 27-inch telescope.
The telescope will be used for a range of purposes, said Rose Finn, chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department at Siena, from allowing the public to come and take a peak to research projects.
“This is a new capability at Siena. We had very small portable telescopes but this is a completely new facility for us so this is a game changer not only for our majors, but a third of our students take astronomy and they have never had a chance to look through a telescope like this,” she said. “It’s been something the physics department has been trying to do for 30 years and there was an opportunity to apply for a grant and given the number of students who pass through the program we decided this was a good use of the funding.”
The telescope will see “millions and millions of light years” into space and it’s hard to describe what that actually means. But, Finn said, the moon would be too bright – or too close – to examine through the telescope.
“You will get a great view of nearby galaxies and different planets and that is what you can see with your eye,” she said. “If we put a camera on the back, it’s totally different, and we can do integrating for a long time and you can see deep sky objects like distant galaxies.”
How the telescope will ultimately get used is still up in the air, said Finn, who has chaired the department for eight years. There are rudimentary plans to show what is seen through the telescope on social media or other websites and allowing the public to do astrophotography is also being discussed.
“There is so much interest in astronomy that we can do a lot with our students and with the community,” she said, adding that when the college hosted an “eclipse night” some 500 people showed up.
The dome is very basic, and is make out of simple tin. It’s by design, though, because for optimal viewing the temperature inside the telescope must be the same as it is outside. There is an entire field of science dedicated to optimizing such equipment and if there is that drastic of a temperature change, fungus and other imperfections could distort the high-tech, high quality glass and mirrors. If it’s 10 degrees below zero or 90 degrees outside the dome, it should be the same inside.
The dome has a trap door-type feature that opens so the telescope can see outside, and spins depending on which direction the user wants to view. Once everything is up and running, most everything can be done from a remote location via computer.
It took a carpenter with the construction company BBL, and his apprentice daughter, just two days to build and that was after a week to build the base. There is about another week of work left to finish everything off. The telescope should be up and running by the time students return for classes in the fall.
“It’s been an interesting job. I’ve been doing this for 28 years and I’ve never done anything like this before and probably never will be again,” said Brian Gordon, of Schenectady, a member of the Carpenters Union Local 291. “It’s odd and it’s different and you only get one chance to get it right.”
He said it was somewhat nerve wracking knowing the media and some 40 to 50 people would be watching the crane hoist the dome he built on the ground onto the circular base he built on the roof.
“On Friday I triple checked this thing five times because the last thing you want to do is pick it up, with these people watching, and find it doesn’t fit,” he said.
Asked if it was going to fit, he and his daughter Brianna, without hesitation, said “of course … absolutely.”
“This is my first big project and this is super exciting because this is making history,” said Brianna Gordon. “Before I even graduate and become a full-fledged journeyman I get to help make history. I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands and making something out of nothing. Money is nice, but the whole point is saying ‘look what I did’ when it’s all done.”
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