This time of year has fewer hours of darkness, but since school is out, I get more opportunities to use the Fort Lewis College Observatory. This spring, two physics students completed senior research projects using the observatory, and this summer several more students are getting up to speed on operations there.
I hope you get a chance to browse the observatory website and see some recent images and activities. Here is a quick summary of the history and equipment.
The observatory is at the Old Fort Lewis site south of Hesperus. There is a 12-foot diameter clamshell dome for the telescope and a small trailer used as a control room.
The dome was assembled in 2003, but there was no power until the next year. Upgrades have been added every year, and Internet access was finally available at that remote location in 2012.
Last year, we installed webcams for remote viewing. Direct links to the live views are shown below. Enter the user name “guest” and leave the password field blank. During telescope use, the inside camera is turned off because the infrared night vision feature interferes with observations.
Inside the dome is a Meade LX200 Classic 16-inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescope. For many years, it was on loan from Los Alamos National Labs. In 2009, it was officially donated to Fort Lewis.
This telescope is rarely looked through with human eyes. Instead, a camera attached to a computer records what the telescope is pointing at with much greater sensitivity than your eyes can provide.
To make the digital camera extra sensitive, the sensor is cooled, and it records images in black and white. To get a color image, you would need to take a picture of the same target three different times using red, green and blue filters, and then combine the three images using software.
From west to east, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn are great markers of the zodiac. The zodiac is simply the band in the sky that the planets stay in. It is about 20 degrees wide and centered on the ecliptic. The ecliptic is the path the sun follows in the sky, and no planet ever gets more than 8 degrees away from it. For an angle comparison, if you hold your fist at arms’ length, your fist will appear to be about 10 degrees wide.
Compared to Earth’s orbit, Pluto has an orbit that is inclined by 17 degrees. The fact that Pluto can get so far from the ecliptic is one of the several reasons it is now considered a minor planet.
For summer activities, check with the Four Corners Stargazers. On June 7 at the Powerhouse Science Center (formerly Durango Discovery Museum) an evening of stargazing will cap off Animas River Days. That night Mars will be close to the moon. Regular summer new-moon events are always scheduled at the Durango Nature Center, and look for a couple of events at Mancos State Park.
[email protected] Charles Hakes is an assistant professor in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College. He is director of the Fort Lewis College Observatory.