October 20, 2013

Monday Q&A: Modesto Junior College looks to the skies with new observatory and planetarium

A new observatory and planetarium at Modesto Junior College enhance instruction for its students while providing sky-gazing opportunities for the public.

We urge our children to reach for the stars when they set out on their education. At Modesto Junior College, they can reach 5 billion light-years into space.

That is the range of a telescope that is part of a new observatory and planetarium on the west campus. Those facilities in turn are part of the new Science Community Center, a $70 million complex funded by Measure E property taxes.

Physics and astronomy professor Ken Meidl provided details on the new teaching tools, which also will be available to the general public. He also shared his thoughts on why the universe fascinates us Earthlings.

Q: How do the new observatory and planetarium improve instruction for MJC students?

A: The observatory and planetarium are excellent instructional laboratories for MJC students since they permit the instructor to demonstrate difficult scientific concepts. The planetarium allows the student to visualize celestial objects, their motions, their interactions and their places in space. Once a student understands these concepts and then has the ability to conduct scientific observations and measurements, a much richer, meaningful and exciting academic experience results. The observatory, for example, gives the student direct access to planetary, stellar and galactic images for lab analysis. With these new facilities, we are equipped to a comparable level with many colleges and institutions in the state.

Q: What opportunities will the public have to take part in this?

A: In the year 2000, I was asked to chair the development of a new science building. The small planning committee latched onto the idea of combining our Great Valley Museum with a planetarium, observatory and college instructional laboratories. A facility of this nature would be a tremendous resource for science education in our community. The vision was brought to fruition with the Science Community Center. The expectation has always been that the public would utilize the science center on a daily basis through museum visits, K-12 field trips and science events. Our recent Wild Planet Day and Open Telescope Night had over 1,000 visitors. The public can also participate as a volunteer. Without our knowledgeable college students and community members, we could never bring you the Open Telescope Nights, especially when hundreds of folks come out to look at the sky with us.

Q: Can you describe the telescope’s features?

A: The CDK 700 telescope is the fourth of its kind built by PlaneWave Instruments of California. It is a 27-inch (700 millimeter) aperture Corrected Dahl-Kirkham reflector with integrated CCD imaging capability. The telescope has the electronic connectivity to be operated from the observatory, as well as the dedicated astronomy lab room in the main building. The mount is an altitude/azimuth design, and each fork on the mount is an optical port, allowing us to change from viewing with your eyes to camera imaging in seconds. And since the mount simply rotates like a turntable, the eyepiece is always at the same height. PlaneWave designed that height to be optimal for a wheelchair user. These key features make the overall design unique, user-friendly and wonderfully accessible by all.

Q: What can you see with the telescope?

A: The present telescope/camera technology is superior to the technology with which Edwin Hubble measured the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy and discovered the expansion of the universe. With filters, image-stacking techniques and software processing, we can nearly eliminate light pollution and record fine detail. We can see (image) galaxies at distances of 2 billion to 5 billion light-years and asteroids that are capable of disrupting life on Earth. The rings of Saturn will knock your socks off.

Q: Is it possible that it will discover something new?

A: Yes! Comparable telescopes to the CDK 700 discover new comets, supernovas, asteroids and even extra-solar planets. The universe is big, and the professionals cannot be looking everywhere at once. This makes the observational aspect of astronomy completely accessible to the amateur as well as the professional. Astronomy is one of the happy exceptions in science where the amateurs continue to make significant contributions.

Q: Can you describe the planetarium’s features?

A: The planetarium has a 40-foot dome, 105 seats and a surround-sound system. The heart of the planetarium consists of two projector systems that work in unison, a true hybrid of a Zeiss mechanical star projector and a Zeiss digital video system. The star projector is truly a work of art and it is capable of showing 7,000 stars, constellations, planets, the sun, the moon and astronomical grids and markers. It has the ability to accurately display the sky from any location on Earth or from a nearby planet, and from any date in time. It exhibits the most realistic and star-filled sky this side of Sonora Pass! The Zeiss Velvet system consists of two digital projectors that allow great flexibility in what is being shown, such as movies and animations. We use these projectors in conjunction with NASA data sets to navigate through the solar system or the Milky Way galaxy. The experience is remarkable. The installation at MJC is the first in the world with the Velvet projectors and the mechanical star projector.

Q: When lay people read about astronomical discoveries, it often seems to be about extremely subtle things happening in deep space. Is this as interesting as looking at something close and detailed, such as our moon?

A: Because of the size of the cosmos, most objects are necessarily distant from us. Interestingly, a few years ago, the astronomy community was debating whether something as esoteric as a black hole even existed. Now, we know they do, and they are actually much more common than expected. So those subtle deep-sky objects can be very interesting, critically important to our understanding of the universe, and perhaps not so distant or rare. Extra-solar planets are another example. But we all still love looking at the moon.

Q: Do you think there is life out there?

A: Yes. Come to the planetarium and navigate the known universe to comprehend how big it actually is. Most people do not appreciate the size of it. There are billions of galaxies, with hundreds of billions of stars in each one, and – it is a safe bet – with billions of planets in each galaxy. It seems unlikely that Earth is the only place in that giant mess with life.

Q: Why are people so fascinated by all this?

A: A science such as nuclear physics is difficult because we have no direct observation with our human senses of the particles or the forces at play, leaving us with no intuitive sense of that structure. We rely on instruments to expand our senses for measurement and study. But we live in the universe. We are immersed in it. We are a part of it. We observe it directly. And since we cannot yet travel very far into that universe, it is teasingly mysterious. Astronomy, in part, is the story of our place in the universe.

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