The Observing Deck atop McInnis Hall served as the platform for nearly all of the University’s astronomy lab students from 1976-1996. Twin 8” Celestron telescopes and a 17.5” diameter Dobsonian performed well, but 20 years of constant setting up and taking down took their toll on the students, equipment and lab assistants. We were also severely limited in the types of astronomical work that we could accomplish, especially regarding the possibility of any serious research.
The Bradstreet Observatory is the culmination of Dr. Bradstreet’s 20-year-dream and an eight-year, $450,000 fundraising effort made possible by many people. Tom Ridington, Executive Vice President of Marketing Innovation & New Ventures, spearheaded the fundraising effort over all eight years. Earl Russell (on the Board of Trustees of the University) was the architect/engineer. Rob Smith, who was Facilities Director then, carefully scrutinized every last detail throughout the construction, and the result is the most state-of- the-art astronomical observatory in the Delaware Valley. God is indeed good.
The Observatory consists of twin 14.5-foot diameter galvaluminum Ash Domes, able to rotate 360 degrees. The shutters are designed to slide up behind the dome, with a lower shutter that lowers downward, allowing the observer to see from the horizon to the zenith. The domes are controllable not only from within the dome but also remotely from the Russell Control Room.
The azimuth of the open shutter is automatically read out via digital sensors donated by Ken Goff of Performance Controls, also a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. This allows observers in the Control Room to align the dome to wherever the telescope is pointing without having to see either the telescope or the dome. This is critical because most of the serious observing and research is undertaken from the Control Room, not in the domes.
The domes house 16” diameter Meade LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes. These telescopes are fully computerized, allowing the user to automatically find 64,000 objects pre-stored in the telescopes’ computer.
The telescopes can also be completely controlled remotely via ancillary computer systems. Pentium IV 2.8GHz computers using Software Bisque’s The Sky6 software allow the user to point and click on a star map and send the telescope precisely to over 19 million objects, the same database used by the Hubble Space Telescope. Recent US Naval Observatory software updates have expanded this database to over 526 million objects!
Students can easily find and observe objects through a large array of professional quality eyepieces. They must observe and sketch a number of objects for their observing notebook. This “old-fashioned” astronomy is still the most rewarding aspect of the lab for many. The students cannot believe their first views of Jupiter and Saturn. The most frequent comment is “Is that really Saturn? It doesn’t look real.”
It is especially meaningful when they later take CCD (Charge Coupled Device) pictures of these same objects, revealing incredible detail and structure that the eye just cannot resolve. The students understand fully why astronomers did not understand the true stellar nature of galaxies until 1930, those vast islands of hundreds of billions of stars, looking like wispy cotton candy even in the best photographs.
The computer-controlled cameras are Santa Barbara Instrument Group’s top of the line CCD camera, the ST10-XME. We have two of these coveted cameras that have the ability to self-guide the telescope during long-time exposure, i.e., the camera watches the stars through the telescope during the exposure and constantly instructs the telescope on how to move to exactly keep the stars motionless on the camera chip.
To gain some perspective on the exceptional capabilities of these kinds of digital cameras, regular camera film is only 8% efficient in triggering chemical reactions when impacted by photons (light). CCD cameras register 60-85% of the incoming photons striking the CCD chip’s surface. Thus the efficiency of the telescope’s aperture is greatly increased by these phenomenal cameras, allowing smaller telescopes to outperform million-dollar instruments of the 1970’s.
Observing The Sun
In addition to the tremendous nighttime potential of taking pictures of celestial wonders, the Observatory can visually and photographically observe the Sun in great detail. The Observatory is equipped with a video system that not only allows videotaping views through the telescopes, but also channels the views from the telescopes (or even the computer monitors) to any television set in McInnis Hall via closed circuit channels 5 and 11.
The Observatory has two solar filters. The visual filter allows the surface features of the Sun to be easily seen; sunspots, faculae, and plages. The Hydrogen-Alpha (Ha) filter hones in on a 0.5-angstrom (5.0 x 10-9 cm) bandwidth of the red line of hydrogen (Ha), allowing magnificent views of solar prominences, flares, filaments, sunspots, and granulation to be viewed or videotaped.
Eastern University has a professional computerized weather station (Texas Weather Instruments WLS8000) that automatically collects weather information every second and stores and displays the data to our weather webpage, updating every five minutes.
Research Capabilities Of The Bradstreet Observatory
The Observatory is well equipped to perform meaningful astronomical research. We specialize in eclipsing binary stars, but can also monitor other variable stars, and search for new supernovae and asteroids.
We have an Optec SSP7 remotely-controlled, single channel photometer. This device allows us to precisely analyze starlight via 16 different color filters and a very sensitive cooled Hamamatsu photoelectric photomultiplier. The entire working of the photometer is controlled from within the Control Room via computer, and we (David Steelman and Dr. David Bradstreet) have written data acquisition software to control the photometer and display the observations graphically in real time. This allows the observer to see exactly what the star is doing only moments after taking the data.
We possess an Optomechanics Model 10C spectrograph that allows us to produce excellent stellar spectra of a quality that will allow us to do research on brighter stars. We have begun a project on Betelgeuse to monitor its spectral features to see if they vary in a systematic way corresponding to the star’s already varying light output.
The Bradstreet Observatory has two computers dedicated to data analysis: one using Windows and the other Linux (a Unix language for PCs). The Linux machine allows us to use the same reduction software that is used worldwide by the professional astronomical community.