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Campus Observatory Is All About The Students

New Mexico Tech has earned a top reputation for educating future astrophysicists and astronomers, but many incoming students are unaware that Tech has a student-run observatory stocked with an impressive array of telescopes.

 
     

“We have the best amateur equipment money can buy,” doctoral student Jason Speights said. “I’d eat my hat if there is another university that has as cool of an observatory as we have.”

Perhaps most importantly, the Etscorn Campus Observatory is run by students. The Astronomy Club is in charge of the facility, along with faculty advisor Dr. Dan Klinglesmith. Students have the keys to the facilities and they run the show.

“We don’t have faculty or a bureaucracy deciding who runs the equipment,” Speights said. “Students from any major can help out, learn it and use it. Anyone interested in amateur astronomy is welcome.”

Senior James Faulkner said he likes to have group study sessions at Etscorn because it’s usually quiet and comfortable. Club president Stephanie Moats said students do much more than astronomy lab assignments at the observatory. In addition to telescopes domes and a computer control room, Etscorn has a cozy meeting room where students hold pizza parties and movie nights.

Stephanie Moats, the president of the Astronomy Club, and Phil Jenks, at Etscorn Campus Observatory.

“We hold star parties all year long,” she said. “It’s a way for people in astronomy and other majors too – the geology majors and the engineers like to come and go – to use telescopes and practice astronomy. It’s pretty relaxed.”

The Astronomy Club hosts special events for visiting students, visiting teachers interested in taking astronomy into the classroom and visiting stargazers. 

Of course, the observatory is not all fun and games. Students do astrophysics lab work at the facility. Speight teaches the junior sequence classes – Astronomy Lab 1 and 2 – at the facility. The lab includes plenty of observing nights, including a 12-hour project. Physics students also use the observatory equipment to track and calculate the orbit of contact binary star. Students have also observed extrasolar planet X01 transiting its star. Students get plenty of recreational star gazing as well.

“The Orion Nebula is always a favorite,” Moats said. “The Pinwheel Galaxy too … or The Mice, which is two colliding galaxies.”

Students maintain the facilities; they fix equipment when it breaks – and learn how to run the show without breaking things. For nine months of the year, Tech students are at the observatory on virtually every clear night. Any student can learn how to use the equipment.

Etscorn Campus Observatory telescopes

  • Tectron 20-inch Telescope
  • Two Celestron 14-inch Schmidt Cassegrains
  • Takahashi 6-inch
  • Meade 8-inch
  • Three Coulter Odyssey 13.1-inch
  • Celestron 8-inch Schmidt Cassegrain
  • Coronado 40-millimeter
  • Two Karl Electronics 3.05-meter radio dishes

“I like to go outside of class because it’s helpful to use an observatory with that sort of equipment to take images and learn about these objects,” Faulkner said.

The observatory is named after former Tech psychology professor Dr. Frank T. Etscorn, the inventor of the nicotine patch. Etscorn was an avid amateur astronomer and donated the seed money in the early 1990s to build facilities and purchase equipment. Since then, the Astronomy Club has accepted several donated telescopes and purchased its own equipment, along with help from the university and private donors.

Faulkner, who went to high school near Lubbock, Texas, said he came to New Mexico Tech because of its reputation in astrophysics; however, he had no idea that Tech had such a great collection of telescopes.

“It was a big bonus to learn about Etscorn,” he said. “I’ve taken advantage of it. I have friends from biology, geology and petroleum engineering who enjoy coming out and taking pictures. It’s nice because there’s no time limit. We can stay all night.”

 

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By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech