Seeing stars: Astronomy Department gifted telescope

Last Friday, Colby College became home to the largest operational viewing telescope in New England. The Young Observatory, a regional record-breaking .7 meter telescope, is four times more powerful than its predecessor the Collins Observatory. The Young Observatory, made possible by a gift from the Young family, will provide Colby students with pioneering research opportunities that were previously unattainable.

Dale Kocevski, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy, explained the observatory’s specifications in detail. “[It] has roughly four times the collecting area as the Collins 14 inch telescope, which means we can now study objects that are four times as faint as we could before.” Before the telescope was installed, “studying more distant objects, such as galaxies outside the Milky Way, [was] a challenge” said Kocevski. One particular area of research the college will now be able to conduct is research related to black holes. With the new telescope, students can use a technique called “reverberation mapping” to measure the masses of black holes at the center of galaxies. “[This] can only really be done using a telescope as large as the Young telescope, ” explained Kocevski.

The completion of the Young Observatory ended a multi-step process to revamp the College’s astrometric viewing facilities. Given the light pollution generated by Waterville, the Collins Observatory was moved from its original location near the Coomb baseball field to its new location at the top of Runnals Hill. Runnals Hill provided the space that was necessary to house the new telescope and a fully-networked astronomy computer lab.

Kocevski believes that the new facilities will go a long way to meet the increase in student demand for Astronomy classes. He commented in an interview with The Echo that “Astronomy at Colby has seen a rapid expansion in the recent past. This is largely due to the enthusiasm students have shown for the topic. Astronomy courses are routinely over-enrolled by factors of two to three.” To meet demand, “the Physics and Astronomy Department added a second astronomer two years ago” said Kocevski, allowing the department to offer classes such as Astrobiology and Extragalactic Astronomy, classes that have never been offered before at the college.
Kocevski encourages students of all academic backgrounds to take advantage of the telescope. “Students interested in using the telescope themselves should definitely considering taking one of the two introductory astronomy courses we offer, AS151 and AS172,” said Kocevski. He added that advanced astronomy students “will be able to use the telescope independently to carry out research projects of their own design”.

Given the telescope’s impressive specifications, neighboring institutions have expressed their enthusiasm in using and supporting the telescope. According to Kocevski, “Astronomers at Bates College have already expressed interest in potentially adding a spectrograph to the telescope in exchange for access to the observatory. This new instrument would increase the capabilities of the telescope and allow us to carry out a range of science projects that we currently cannot.” In addition, Kocevski views the telescope “as a means to build a bridge between Colby and the greater Waterville community”. To achieve this goal, The Physics and Astronomy Department plans to host educational events that will be open to the public.