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Fort Lewis College observatory sets sights on equipment upgrades

Professor shows off side-by-side images of galaxy cluster, one taken by James Webb
Fort Lewis College physics and engineering professor Charles L. Hakes with the camera-mounted PlaneWave telescope in the campus observatory. The college is preparing for upgrades that will allow for remote access to telescopes and improved image quality. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

New images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have provided humankind with glimpses of the cosmos in unprecedented clarity. Closer to home, the small observatory at Fort Lewis College in Durango is preparing for some exciting upgrades of its own.

Major upgrades include expanded camera space for color filters, remote access to telescopes, and improved image quality and motor tracking abilities, said Charles Hakes, physics and engineering professor at FLC.

The James Webb Space Telescope’s near-infrared camera can capture clear images of points in the sky with a width of less than a single arcsecond per pixel, according to NASA, or a sixtieth of one arcminute. For reference, one arcminute is about the width of one’s fingernail held at arm’s length.

In 2009, an FLC telescope captured an image similar to James Webb’s of Stephan’s Quintet, a cluster of five galaxies, in four to five arc seconds. But with a new setup with more filters and auto-guided motor tracking, the college should be able to capture images at the quality of two to three arcseconds, Hakes said. The aim is to go even further and capture quality images at one arcsecond’s width.

The observatory at Fort Lewis College on Tuesday sits atop Sitter Family Hall, which houses the physics, geo sciences and engineering departments on campus. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The college is getting ready to install a new flexible filter wheel for the video camera attached to its 14-inch PlaneWave Corrected Dall-Kirkham telescope. The telescope can track the transits of exoplanets and is especially good for making variable star observations – that is, changes in the brightness of a star over time, he said.

The telescope uses a video camera rather than an eyepiece and records images and video in black and white. But with the use of filters, it can capture specific colors. Those images can be combined into one colored photo in software.

The camera is currently fixed with a seven-filter wheel, but the college plans to upgrade it to an 18-filer wheel. He said the camera can also be fitted with narrowband filters that capture specific wavelengths associated with certain elements, such as hydrogen, sulfur or oxygen.

“This setup should be able to get higher resolution,” he said. “And most of that is (because of) auto-guiding and better correction of what’s in the atmosphere and tracking.”

The observatory at Fort Lewis College on Tuesday sits atop Sitter Family Hall, which houses the physics, geo sciences and engineering departments on campus. Stormy weather has kept the observatory roof closed in recent weeks. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

An improved auto-guided motor is an important feature because tracking a point in space is always the hardest part, he said. Any form of tracking needs to account for the fact that the Earth is spinning and moving through space.

“That is the challenge with any scope anywhere,” he said. “No matter how good your motor is, it won’t correct (for the Earth’s motion) that well. It won’t put in the right amount of corrections in following it (the target point).”

Another feature Hakes wants to secure for all of the college’s telescopes is the ability to run them remotely, he said. But the college is still sorting through information technology issues to get that function up and running.

Hardware and software upgrades have been a long time coming but weren’t addressed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. Those upgrades include reinstalling drivers for imaging softwares and relinking hardware so that it is compatible with each other. And those aren’t the only developments that have been delayed.

Senior astronomy projects and ideas of public star parties at the Sitter Family Hall observatory were put on hold during the pandemic. Now, with the worst of COVID-19 seemingly past, the weather has to cooperate.

“The pandemic sure slowed things down, and we are definitely in the ‘getting-things-back-up-and-running’ mode with new computers and hardware,” Hakes said.

The U.S. Air Force observatory telescope at Fort Lewis College sits atop Sitter Family Hall that houses the physics, geo sciences and engineering departments on campus. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

He said during calls for social distancing it was hard to get senior students up to the observatory at night for projects.

Recent rains and thunderstorms have also prevented the college from making the most of its telescopes atop Sitter Family Hall, he said. The college observatory uses a wide roll-off roof that can be pulled back to reveal the cosmos to the stationary telescopes stored inside. But that doesn’t do much good if the sky is cloudy.

The weather is the only thing standing in the way of Hakes and students testing a telescope that has an eyepiece rather than a camera, he said.

Hakes would like to use the eyepiece telescope for public star parties, or events where people can bring their own telescopes and nerd out over stars, planets and other celestial bodies. He said there is a lot of interest in the idea. Students and members of the public would be able to gather under the observatory’s roll-off roof and point their telescopes at the sky. But the pandemic got in the way.

“I thought I was going to have public star parties (at the observatory),” he said. “We were even kind of making plans and then the pandemic happened. That part fell by the wayside.”

James Webb Space Telescope
The image on the left is Stephan’s Quintet photographed in 2009 by the Fort Lewis College telescope. The image on the right is the same five-galaxy cluster photographed by the James Webb Space Telescope earlier this year. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Although the pandemic slowed activities and recent weather has been uncooperative, Hakes is enthusiastic about NASA’s developments with its James Webb Space Telescope.

“It’s pretty cool and I think it’s going to get even better in the next couple of years,” he said. “These first images, especially the really, really deep image, were pretty amazing.”

He said the most fascinating thing about the James Webb Space Telescope images is that so many new galaxies have been revealed in the same point in space FLC was observing in 2009.

“It’s probably the first time some of these galaxies have ever been imaged,” he said.

cburney@durangoherald.com

The college is preparing to install a new flexible filter wheel for the video camera attached to its 14-inch PlaneWave Corrected Dall-Kirkham telescope. The camera on the telescope in the observatory at Fort Lewis College is cooled to minus 30 degrees Celsius before taking photos. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
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