Plans for observatory renovation in place

Photo by Rafael Porto

Plans for updates and renovations to Butler University’s Holcomb Observatory to enhance student learning are in the works.

Butler is a member of the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy consortium.  The consortium will start a $350,000 refurbishment of the Butler telescope after it finishes renovations to SARA’s other telescopes in Kitt Peak, Ariz.,

and Cerro Tololo, Chile.

The project will hopefully start in the next few months and will take about a year to complete.

The last renovation occurred 15 years ago to a computer operating the telescope, and the technology was severely outdated.

The refurbishment will make the telescope remotely operated, meaning students will be able to operate this telescope much like the ones in Arizona and Chile.  These telescopes are operated right from Butler computers.

Physics Professor Brian Murphy said this will make operation of the telescope possible from anywhere in the world, given that the computer used has the proper software and the user has the correct passcodes.

“The first upgrade allowed us to do the first research ever with our telescope,” Murphy said.  “The new refurbishment will make the telescope useful for even more research.”

The bulk of the research is done on the remotely-operated telescopes in Arizona and Chile.  The telescopes are shared among the 11 SARA members, which include three Indiana schools: Butler, Ball State and Valparaiso.

SARA institutes pay a one-time fee of $50,000 to join and then $10,000 once a year thereafter.  The membership allows students access to observation time on the telescopes.

Murphy says this is beneficial for research given that the skies in Chile are among the darkest in the world.

“We’re partly limited here because we’re clouded out two-thirds of the time during the winter, so we can’t observe a lot,” Murphy said.

Junior Adam Hibshman is a tour guide at the observatory on the weekends.  His tours consist of planetarium presentations, as well as a view of the 38-inch Cassegrain,  the main telescope.

“Interestingly, when the money was donated in the 1950’s by James Irving Holcomb and his wife, they donated the money with the stipulation that public viewing of the telescope always remains free,” Hibshman said.  “This means that

anyone from the Indianapolis community can view through the scope anytime they like when we are open on the weekends.”

Hibshman says that the Indianapolis sky and clouds affect not only research but also what guests see on tours.

“One caveat of viewing through our telescope here in Indianapolis is that we oftentimes have to fight the clouds,” Hibshman said.  “Given that the majority of the school year is during the cooler months, guests often miss out on seeing anything

through the scope due to the weather.”

To further research and avoid cloudy skies, the consortium is looking at possibly acquiring another telescope in the Canary Islands.

“The nice thing about the Canary Islands, if that scope comes into play, is that we can start observing at noon here because it is to the east,” Murphy said.

Murphy said that students would then be able to actually do observations during class-time hours.

The current telescopes are on land that is leased to the United States.  The Europeans own the telescope in the Canary Islands, so negotiations are international and a bit longer to process.

“Once we agree with them on a few things, we’ll probably go forward with putting in a proposal as a consortium,” Murphy said.

Another update to enhance learning is a remote observing lab.  Located in Gallahue Hall 222, this room will have 27-inch computer screen monitors, televisions and remote keyboards.

Murphy said this technology would allow for more collaboration on research since there has never been a space quite like this before.

Money for this space came through donations from  Frank Levinson, a 1975 Butler graduate. Murphy said that Levinson was particularly interested in helping out Butler sciences.

“We have a tradition of astronomy here,” Murphy said.

Experiences with the telescope have proved memorable for Butler students.  For example, junior Ellie Pierson, though not an astronomy major, took a class last semester and found the experience to be intriguing.

“I did an extra-credit assignment where we camped out in the observatory room all night and were able to shadow someone who controlled the telescope,” Pierson said.  “It was interesting to see how it is all set up and that we are able to do this

all from Butler’s campus.”

Hibshman agrees, adding that his experiences as a tour guide at the observatory are also helpful in his public speaking skills as an education major.

“I didn’t know much about astronomy before I started working at the observatory, but I am learning so much as I go and am excited to keep learning and discovering new things that I never knew before about our universe,” Hibshman said.  “It

gives me a lot of pride to be one of the few lucky people to know the ins and outs of one of Butler’s very distinct landmarks that is rarely visited by students but is the backdrop of the most scenic view on campus.”


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