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New observatory to be ready by fall

Austin Peay State University will have an observatory ready for use by Fall 2007, thanks to the hard work of the astronomy/physics faculty and the strong support of President Sherry Hoppe.

Hoppe was president of Roane State Community College during the time the Tamke-Allan Observatory and Science Center was conceived and constructed there.
Austin Peay State University will have an observatory ready for use by Fall 2007, thanks to the hard work of the astronomy/physics faculty and the strong support of President Sherry Hoppe.

Hoppe was president of Roane State Community College during the time the Tamke-Allan Observatory and Science Center was conceived and constructed there.

APSU's observatory will be built about 12 miles from campus, near Palmyra, thanks to a land gift of 4.26 acres from Dr. Spencer Buckner, associate professor of physics and astronomy. The estimated value of the land Buckner gave the University is $17,000-$20,000.

Approved by the State Building Commission, the observatory has a construction budget of $500,000, according to Vice President for Finance and Administration Mitch Robinson. It will consist of a 17-foot dome and a 1,000-square-foot classroom and storage building.

According to Buckner, the dome has been purchased and is stored in a warehouse, awaiting installation. The telescope, 16 inches in diameter, has been ordered.

“By fall semester, we hope to be able to take our introductory astronomy classes out to the site several times a semester to let them get hands-on experience with the real sky,” Buckner said. “Next fall, we'll be offering a class in astrophotography. Even though the class will be officially scheduled here on campus, I expect most of the class meetings will take place in the small classroom at the observatory.”

Plans also call for the astronomy/physics faculty to host area elementary, middle and high school teachers at the new facility, according to Buckner.

Currently, APSU has only small telescopes, which must be moved outside and set up for use, then taken down and stored. And there is no dark-sky observing site, so observations are limited to bright objects that can be seen from the light-polluted area around campus.

Dr. Allyn Smith, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, is enthusiastic. “The 16-inch telescope housed in the new observatory will be a research-quality instrument. Though small, it is a viable instrument for studying brighter objectsvariable stars and asteroidsusing photometry and photography techniques. This will allow us to have students conduct their own observing projects and learn the minutia involved in planning a project, doing the background, obtaining, reducing and calibrating the data and writing the papers.

“A telescope of this size will produce publishable results and will be the cornerstone of a projected expansion of the astronomy effort. We've applied to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for funding for a larger telescope, which would give us the capability to do spectroscopy in addition to photometry.”

Even as the new observatory is in initial stages of construction, Buckner and Smith are dreaming bigger. Already, they are looking forward to an even larger telescope. If funded, the NSF grant would be used to build a 32-inch telescope in a 28-foot dome.

“That would give us the largest research-grade telescope in the state. That kind of facility will put us on the map for astronomy in the Southeast,” Buckner said. “It would open up research opportunities for our students and help us build one of the strongest undergraduate astronomy programs in the region, to go along with the strong physics program we already have.”

For more information about the APSU Department of Physics and Astronomy, contact department chair Dr. Jaime Taylor by telephone at (931) 221-6361 or e-mail, taylorj@apsu.edu. -- Dennie B. Burke