| by Laura Meader

Light from distant galaxies is now easier to collect and analyze with Colby’s new 28-inch telescope, the largest in New England. Dedicated during Family Homecoming Weekend, the research-grade, robotic telescope, housed in the Young Observatory, is the largest in New England and will facilitate new research and collaborative projects for students and faculty.

The acquisition of the fully automated PlaneWave telescope sets Colby apart from its peers.

The Young Observatory sits atop Runnals Hill.

The Young Observatory sits atop Runnals Hill.                                         Photo: John T. Meader

“Liberal arts colleges of our size can’t claim to have a research-quality telescope,” said Provost and Dean of Faculty Lori Kletzer, “but we can.” This facility will provide students and faculty with teaching and learning opportunities never thought possible, she said.

The new telescope is twice the diameter of Colby’s existing telescope, which means it’s four times more powerful and can see objects twice as far away, according to Assistant Professor of Astronomy and Physics Dale Kocevski. “We can now shift from looking at bright things like nearby stars,” he said, “and start looking at faint extragalactic objects.”

To illustrate the point, Clare Booth Luce Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Liz McGrath showed the telescope’s first-light image—the Whirlpool Galaxy—and pointed out the galaxy’s dust lanes and structure. “I’ve taken images of this galaxy in the past and I had never seen detail quite this crisp before except with research-grade telescopes on the summits of mountains in California,” McGrath said.

McGrath also compared an image of the Dumbbell Nebula taken with the College’s 14-inch telescope to an image from the 28-inch telescope, smiling with delight when the crowd oohed loudly seeing the difference between the two images.

The telescope, located at the new dark-sky site on Runnals Hill, was made possible by the generosity of Deanna and Dave Young P’18, ’18. Dave Young, a committed amateur astronomer, says the telescope will allow students to focus not only on the astronomy and the physics of what they’re observing, but also on the telescope’s electronics, optics, robotics, and computer interface.

“The facility opens up a wide-range of things that are cross-disciplinary,” Young said. Students interested in software, programming, data piping, large-scale data analytics, chemistry, and art will find opportunities to interact with the telescope, he said. “It’s up to whatever research program they want to undertake.”

30-second exposure of the Whirlpool Galaxy, a mere 23 million light years away.

Whirlpool Galaxy, 23 million light years away.

Colby’s already strong astronomy program—led most recently by Murray Campbell, William A. Rogers Professor of Physics, Emeritus—has recently expanded with the addition of a minor in astronomy and new faculty positions. Students may also pursue an astrophysics concentration, designed to prepare them to pursue advanced degrees. Over the last decade, the Physics and Astronomy Department has sent students for doctorates in astrophysics to competitive programs at Yale University, the University of Washington, Boston University, and University of California, Davis.

The Young Observatory positions Colby to become an astronomy leader among liberal arts colleges. Neighboring institutions have already talked to Kocevski about purchasing instruments to support the telescope in exchange for access to it, making the Young Observatory a regional facility where collaborations flourish.