CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – The metal dome sat tucked away in a warehouse on campus. Dr. Spencer Buckner, associate professor of physics at Austin Peay State University, would check on it occasionally, wondering if it would ever sit atop the University’s first observatory.
“We’ve had that dome for five years, six years,” he said. “It sat in the warehouse for almost four years while we tried to find a place to put it.”
For years, the APSU physics department has sought to build an observatory as a training and research tool for its students. In 2007, Buckner gave the University a land gift of 4.26 acres near Palmyra for the project, but the site was too remote, and construction costs ultimately put construction on hold. The planned building’s metal dome, all the while, stayed almost forgotten in that warehouse.
But last Tuesday, Buckner sat in his office with a warm, though a little weary, smile on his face.
“We’ve been working on this a number of years, and we’re finally getting there,” he said.
At 8 p.m. on Aug. 19, the APSU Observatory will officially open with a ribbon cutting ceremony at the University’s Environmental Educational Center off Peterson Lane in St. Bethlehem. The event is not open to the public.
“The primary use for this will be for educational purposes,” Buckner said. “We have an astronomy minor, and we’re starting to get quite a few students in that minor who want to go on and do research work and graduate work in astronomy. This gives them hands-on experience. They are trained in how to operate a telescope, how to do data reduction for it, how to get scientific value out of it.”
Last year, the physics department used an APSU Faculty Senate grant to purchase a 20-inch Ritchey-Chretien telescope, featuring the same optical design as NASA’s Hubble Telescope. The heavy steel instrument was built in Atlanta and carefully transported to APSU. Several physics professors and students heaved the telescope out of the back of Buckner’s truck and put it in storage.
Once the observatory building was completed earlier this year, the telescope was installed. Buckner hopes to add piers to the outside of the observatory so they can also use some of the department’s existing 10- and 12-inch telescopes when training students at the site.
“That way we can take a group of students out there and don’t have a line around one telescope,” he said.
Buckner also hopes to host public nights once or twice a month at the observatory. Its location at the Environmental Education Center, also known as the APSU farm, still suffers from some of the light pollution put out by the St. Bethlehem community, but the area is dark enough for viewings on clear nights.
“There aren’t many dark sites left east of the Mississippi River,” Buckner said. “We do have access to a telescope in Arizona, at Kitt Peak. We’ve been taking students out there. But we only get to go out for four days, four or five times a year. The observatory here, it’s ours all the time. It’s a great experience for a student, gets them used to how to operate a telescope, the data you get, how to use that data.”
The Aug. 18 ribbon cutting is part of a two-day APSU Physics and Friends Reunion celebration. Past graduates of the APSU physics department and members of the astronomy club will converge on campus that weekend. The festivities will include a 90th birthday celebration for professor Mel Mayfield, the founding chair of that department. Former chairs Sara Wood-Boercker and Dr. Robert Sears will also be honored that weekend.
For more information on the observatory or the reunion, please contact Buckner at 221-6241 or Tonya Leszczak, with APSU Alumni Relations, at 221-1279.