CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Shortly before sunset last Friday evening, a large crowd of stargazers gathered at the Austin Peay State University Environmental Education Center off Pickens Road, hoping to get a good look at the moon or possibly Mars.
The center, also known as the APSU Farm, sits only a few miles from Governor’s Square Mall and is somewhat affected by that area’s light pollution, but as of Friday, it has become the one of the best spots in Clarksville for astronomers to congregate.
That’s because, next to the barns and hay bales, APSU has opened a new observatory with a retractable dome and a 20-inch Ritchey-Chretien telescope, featuring the same optical design as NASA’s Hubble Telescope.
“This facility is going to serve our students,” APSU President Tim Hall said Friday night. “One of the great things about Austin Peay is how our students are actively engaged, not simply in taking notes in classrooms, but actually engaged in the work of discovery.”
For about 10 years, APSU associate professor of physics Dr. Spencer Buckner has worked to build an observatory as a training and research tool for his students. In 2002, he began searching for suitable land to place such a facility, and in 2005, his project gained momentum when the University purchased a dome for the proposed building.
“It was delivered in early 2006 and sat in a warehouse for a number of years,” he said.
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.
Finally, it was decided to put the observatory on the APSU farm, and in October of 2010, the building was put up and the metal dome and telescope installed. Buckner and Dr. Allyn Smith, associate professor of physics, spent the next few months calibrating and preparing the equipment, and at sunset on Aug. 18, the two men joined President Hall for the ribbon cutting ceremony that officially opened the observatory for student use.
“Students will feel like they own this place,” Smith said. “We have a list of tasks students will be involved with this fall, integrating the CCD camera, building the flatfielding screens, painting the dome, painting the store shed, telescope alignment.”
The ribbon cutting was part of a two-day APSU Physics and Friends Reunion celebration. Past graduates of the APSU physics department and members of the astronomy club converged on campus that weekend. The festivities included a 90th birthday celebration for professor Mel Mayfield, the founding chair of that department. Former chairs Sara Wood-Boercker and the late Dr. Robert Sears were also honored that weekend.
The new observatory will serve APSU students, but Buckner also hopes to host public nights once or twice a month at the observatory. And, he said he still hopes to put a similar facility on the APSU property out in Palmyra, away from the light pollution in Clarksville.
“We’re still working on that project…hopefully we’ll have something out there,” he said. “We’ll in effect, get two for one.”
For more information on the new APSU Observatory, contact the APSU Department of Physics at 221-6116.