FSU observatory gives students a new perspective on astronomy

FSU's Department of Physics set up a telescope at Doak Campbell Stadium that will give astronomy students hands-on experience. Photo courtesy of the Department of Physics.

From a terrace along Doak Campbell Stadium, Florida State University students can now get an up-close view of planets, stars and other astronomical objects that are normally too faint to see with the human eye. These awesome views are possible thanks to the new modern astronomical observatory constructed by FSU’s physics department.

The FSU Observatory project is part of the larger university-wide mission to enhance students’ academic experience through technology. With construction complete, the observatory is in regular use and predicted to benefit more than 1,000 students annually through the physics department alone. It has already vastly improved astronomy instruction, said Eric Hsiao, an assistant professor of astrophysics at FSU and one of the project’s leads.

“Learning concepts from a textbook alone cannot match the educational benefit of a hands-on experience,” Hsiao said.

Witnessing astronomical objects through the telescope can be truly awe-inspiring. On a moonless night, he said, observers can spot an object 10,000 times fainter than the faintest object the human eye can see.

“This capability makes a wide range of astronomical objects available to us, from stellar nurseries to sites of dying stars, and from moons in our solar system to supernovae in neighboring galaxies, tens of millions of light years away,” Hsiao said.

Making those views possible is the PlaneWave CDK17 telescope, a feat of engineering that resides within a 10-foot fiberglass dome. The most important property of a telescope is the size of its primary mirror, controlling the number of photons the telescope can collect from faint astronomical objects. The CDK17 has a large elliptical 17-inch diameter primary mirror, while maintaining good off-axis optical performance.

The telescope also has state-of-the-art temperature control. Because warmer air refracts light differently than cooler air, the tiniest difference in temperature over its three-meter focal length is enough to impact the telescope’s sight. That change in temperature can be caused by a multitude of factors. Heat transfer from warmer parts of the instrument, drops in temperature as the sun sets, and when the telescope’s top face is viewing the night sky can all be contributing factors.

Astrophysics doctoral candidate Scott Davis helped complete the project and noted the observatory’s presence affords undergraduate astronomy students the rare opportunity to control such equipment and propose their own observations.

“When working at a professional observatory, most of the equipment is set up for the observer and observing time is scarce. The FSU Campus Observatory gives us the ability to learn more about the inner workings of this equipment at our own pace,” he said.

The project moved from conception to reality during the 2016-2017 school year, when an FSU student-faculty-staff advisory committee that recommends how to utilize the student technology fee deemed the observatory its top project. After securing funding, the physics department began investigating possible locations.

Doak’s rooftop was selected because of its relative distance from other buildings and freestanding lights, which means it’s one of the darkest spots at Florida State when the stadium lights are off. Hsiao, his colleagues and graduate students in astrophysics then spent the next year constructing the dome, installing equipment and testing the system.

The location of the telescope also opens up opportunities in the future to make this cutting-edge resource available to the wider university and Tallahassee community.

“Another one of our aims is to provide this experience to as many members of the public as possible,” Hsiao said.

For more information, visit the FSU Department of Physics website.