Lack of interest in a course means the course isn’t taught – that’s the problem Holly Farris, Montague junior, faced when she looked for astrophysics classes. So she took matters into her own hands. Applying for and achieving a summer FURSCA grant allowed her to attend a week-long seminar at the University of Toledo in Ohio, as well as build her own 8 inch Newtonian telescope.
Could you explain a bit about your project?
“The project had actually been sort of started by the Astronomy Club about five years ago, but they didn’t really get anywhere with it. I had always noticed this pile of stuff sitting in the Physics lounge, and I said, ‘What is that?’ And Dr. Zellner, my advisor, said ‘Oh yeah, they tried to build a telescope,’ and I was like ‘Well, I want to finish it, that would be cool.’”
So was the telescope already partly assembled? “They had some random materials. They had the tube, which is just a big compressed cardboard tube, and lots of random screws. I had to order the bulk of the stuff.”
Where did you get the blueprints to build your own telescope? “I followed the instructions of a guy named John Dobson, who’s with an association called the Sidewalk Astronomers. He put together a whole series on how to build amateur telescopes using everyday objects. So that was the bulk of my project, just being on campus building the telescope.”
Where did you get the materials? “It was kind of a mix. I was all over the place. I went to Menard’s, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Albion Hardware-– I was trying to find all the things I needed for as cheap as possible. I bought the mirror online at an optical supplier.”
How much did it cost? “I used the whole $500 that FURSCA allows. The mirror itself was about $250.”
Did you have any troubles building the telescope?“Calculating the focal length of the mirror was tricky. When you get a mirror, it’s supposed to be grinded down to the perfect curvature to give you what you want, and it has a pretty determined focal length printed with it, but you’re always supposed to double-check because there can be inconsistencies. I calculated the focal point a couple of different ways, got some different answers. So when it came time to drill the hole where the eyepiece was supposed to go, of course I drilled it in the wrong spot the first time.
Also, a lot of trouble-shooting went into holding the mirror in place. You can’t hold it down or screw it in because it has to have room to expand and contract as it heats up and cools down. I had wood in there, duct tape, this foam stuff. Ultimately, I came up with this thing that was a board with three bolts in it, and the bolts could be tightened to move the mirror to the right angle orientation that I wanted and hold it in place.”
So did it actually work? When I took my telescope out for its first light [the first time a telescope is pointed at the sky], I was just really trying to find things that I knew well, trying to see what its’ limits were. I was able to observe the craters on the moon, the rings of Saturn, and a binary star system called Albireo. Seeing the rings of Saturn is a pretty big deal for a telescope of its size. Seeing the binary star system also helped me to determine that my telescope was just as good as the 10 in. that we [Albion College] have on the roof for observing.”
What’s going to happen with your telescope now?
“I am considering applying for another FURSCA grant to pay for an adapter that would fit onto my telescope and would be able to attach a digital camera to it, so that I could take images with it, and for private telescope time on one of the telescopes in Jackson to work on my senior thesis. That would be the ultimate goal – to apply to grad schools and be ‘Oh, I made a telescope and here’s what I did with it.’”