Colby’s Collins Observatory, with its research-grade telescope a fixture on Mayflower Hill since 1988, got a lot better this year. The College moved it to a new site atop Runnals Hill, away from local light pollution, and built a bigger classroom for teaching, running the telescope, and analyzing data from observations.
And the best is still to come. Infrastructure was put in place for a .7-meter (28-inch) reflecting telescope that will further expand teaching and research opportunities in astrophysics. The larger telescope, made possible by a gift from a Colby family, the Youngs, is expected to be delivered to Mayflower Hill from its manufacturer this summer for use beginning in 2016-17.
“The best part about the relocation is we have this great, new, dark-sky site,” said Clare Booth Luce Assistant Professor of Physics Elizabeth McGrath, who studies how galaxies form and evolve. “We’ve moved away from a lot of the surrounding light pollution, both from campus as well as from the Walmart complex.”
“We also have a better view of the sky,” said Assistant Professor Dale Kocevski, who studies black holes and how they may regulate the life and death of galaxies. “The old position had high trees all around it. Now, being on Runnals Hill, we have a great view looking south and east. What’s great is that the ecliptic—the path that the sun, the planets, and the moon follow across the sky—is pretty much open to us,” he said. “That’s exactly the part of the sky that has great visibility.”
Kocevski said they considered moving the observatory off campus for the best possible light conditions. But accessibility combined with very good viewing conditions on Runnals Hill won out. It’s dark and an easy walk from anywhere on campus. The new 16-by-48-foot classroom is considerably larger than the previous quarters near the baseball field, now allowing professors to accommodate 15 or more students. And the observatory cluster, including bathrooms, is ADA accessible.
“We have this great, new, dark-sky site.”
Astronomer Elizabeth McGrath
That’s important, since astronomy and astrophysics classes are so popular that most courses are over-enrolled, Kocevski said. McGrath emphasized that it will be helpful to have introductory classes work on the College’s existing 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain scope while advanced students do research on the new, larger telescope beginning next year.
With McGrath and Kocevski both specializing in extragalactic astronomy, the promise of the newer .7-meter telescope is an exciting development. “We believe it will be the largest telescope in New England,” Kocevski said. “Definitely among public astronomy programs we couldn’t find a larger one.”
With twice the diameter of the current telescope, the new instrument will have four times the mirror surface area, McGrath said. “When you’re trying to observe faint objects, collecting area is key,” McGrath said. “Basically you just get more photons from the sky, which means you can see much fainter objects.”
“No matter how much you zoom in on a star it’s going to look like a point source,” Kocevski said. “A fourteen-inch telescope, what we have currently, is great for that. But for galaxies, they’re large, they’re extended, they’re diffuse, and they’re faint. So to study nearby galaxies you really need collecting area—a larger mirror.”
“That’s exciting for us,” McGrath added, “because our research area is extragalactic astronomy. We both study galaxies.”
With McGrath and Kocevski on the faculty, the new location of the observatory, and a new telescope in the pipeline, interest in astronomy is high at Colby and in the community. A star party cosponsored by Colby and the Winslow Public Library Jan. 22 brought more than 150 people to the new observatory site, despite temperatures below 20 degrees and a full moon that made viewing of planets and stars harder.
In one sense, the new location is a vision already fulfilled. Kelly Doran, assistant director for capital planning and construction, noted that Jens Frederick Larson’s original plan for Colby’s Mayflower Hill campus shows an observatory—right there on top of what’s now known as Runnals Hill.