By Thomas Guengerich
Right: New Mexico Tech astrophysics senior Krista McCord with the 20-inch Dobsonian telescope at Etscorn Observatory.
SOCORRO – The Etscorn Observatory at New Mexico Tech – thanks to two donors – is officially the owner of the mainstay telescope that had been on loan for many years.
Physics Department Chair Dave Westpfahl and an anonymous donor provided the money for the university to purchase a 20-inch diameter, six-foot long Dobsonian telescope.
"I’m really fond of it and I’m glad we’re keeping it,” doctoral student Jason Speights. “In astronomy, size matters. With a 20-inch mirror, it’s really useful for viewing faint, fuzzy things.”
Westpfahl said the telescope belonged to a former member of the local Astronomy Club who had moved away from Socorro. Ken Mason was an amateur astronomer who owned the telescope, but stored the Dobson scope at Etscorn and allowed the university and community members to use it.
Mason recently decided to sell the telescope and Westpfahl was quick to enlist the support of the club and the university to purchase the item.
The facility is named after former Tech professor Dr. Frank Etscorn, who invented the nicotine patch. An avid astronomer, Etscorn made the initial donation that funded the construction of the observatories first buildings.
The Dobsonian telescope is optimized for viewing and is not attached to scientific instruments or photographic equipment, Westpfahl said. The 20-inch diameter makes the Dobson rather large for amateur astronomy. It’s six-foot length requires observers to use a step-ladder to access the eyepiece.
Krista McCord is a senior astrophysics major and the president of the Astronomy Club. She said she likes using the Dobsonian because it’s very convenient.
“We can move it with our hands and see objects with our eyes,” she said, “instead of computerized controls and looking at pictures.”
Left: New Mexico Tech doctoral student Jason Speights shows off the 20-inch Dobsonian telescope, which is the workhorse instrument at the Etscorn Observatory. Speights teaches the astrophysics labs that focus on using telescopes.
Klinglesmith and Westpfahl both said the Dobson is also an important teaching tool for university students.
"We use it to teach students how to find things in the sky,” Klinglesmith said. “That’s an art that is being lost with these fancy, new telescopes. With new computerized equipment, you type in a name and the telescope finds it. This is a good tool for teaching students how to use optical equipment.”
The Etscorn Observatory is important because it’s the home to the astronomy club and it’s provides popular activities for students, Westpfahl said. “It’s a place where we popularize science and we take science to the community.”
Astrophysicist Dr. Daniel Klinglesmith said the Dobsonian is the single most important outreach tool for bringing astronomy to the community.
"In real estate, it’s location, location, location,” Klinglesmith said. “In telescopes, it’s aperture, aperture, aperture. The 20-inch Dobsonian is physically the largest one we have at the Etscorn Observatory. It makes a big impression on people. I get lots of, ‘Oh, gee! Wow!’ reactions when people look through it and see planets, the moon or galaxies.”
"The planets [in the solar system] look amazing,” Speights said. “They almost look like cartoons. People ask us if what they’re seeing is real because it looks like something you’d see on a TV show.”
This telescope has been the mainstay of the observatory’s outreach activities for years. The facility hosts more than 1,000 visitors each year, during monthly community star parties and events held in conjunction with other festivals, like the Festival of the Cranes. The observatory is hosts school groups regularly as well.
"Think of a public night and a family comes to the observatory,” Westpfahl said. “Everybody sees Saturn and its rings for the first time – not just a picture, you really see it.”
Speights said youngsters get a real kick out of climbing up the stairs and looking in this behemoth of a telescope. University students really like the Dobsonian too. Speights, who teaches astronomy labs to undergraduate, said astrophysics majors virtually live at Etscorn during their junior year.
"Etscorn is a beautiful facility with multiple telescopes in multiple buildings,” Westpfahl said. “The Dobsonian telescope has its own dome and is a true asset.”
The Etscorn Observatory is largely run by students. Speights and McCord are among the select few who have keys to the facility. Both students came to New Mexico Tech – both from Texas – because of the astrophysics department and the university’s superior equipment.
McCord found an interest in astronomy as a youngster. By the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to study astrophysics. As she began looking at colleges, she was especially swayed by the research opportunities offered at Tech for undergraduate students.
Speights said very few – if any – universities in the nation have comparable telescopes and observing facilities.
The Dobsonian is mounted inside a 16-foot diameter dome. Other telescopes include a 6” Takahashi refractor scope, a 14-inch Celestron and three 13-inch portable Dobsonians. Most of the telescopes are permanently mounted in their own domes.
The observatory is used for astrophysics observation laboratory classes, using Dobsonians and other telescopes equipped with cameras and spectrometers.
In his astronomy lab, Speights teaches students how to use all the telescopes at Etscorn. Among the lab activities is a “scavenger hunt,” in which students have a list of things to find in the skies.
"The 20-inch telescope is by far their favorite,” he said. “They practically arm-wrestle each other to use it.”
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