Parking ramp 'heavenly' for more than just commuters

What began as a plan to put a small telescope in a modest shed on the top level of the Anderson Parking Facility has, in the words of St. Thomas physics Professor Dr. Gerry Ruch, turned into “a gorgeous building with a very sophisticated instrument in it.”

That instrument? It’s a Planewave CDK-17, a small but mighty, robotically operated telescope advanced enough to capture images of space objects well beyond our solar system. Its 17-inch primary mirror, located at the back of the telescope, rivals that of other college and university observatories in the area.  (To put things in perspective, consider this: The world's largest telescope, under construction on the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, will have a  primary mirror nearly 100 feet in diameter.)

The telescope is housed in the St. Thomas Observatory, located on the top level of the Anderson Parking Facility, which opened in February. A dedication ceremony for the ramp and the observatory will be held at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29, in the 3M Auditorium in Owens Science Hall on the south campus, with a reception and observatory tour to follow. Everyone's welcome, but R.S.V.P. for the ceremony to Colleen Casey Simonson.

The observatory

The observatory consists of two rooms: a heated and air-conditioned control room and an adjoining, domed room that houses the telescope. Inside the control room are comfortable leather swivel chairs, two large computer monitors that connect to, and capture images from, the telescope and a 37-inch television screen mounted to the west wall so onlookers can comfortably view the images from space.

Although funds from Lee and Penny Anderson’s $60 million donation were not used to build the observatory, Johnston and Ruch acknowledge that without the ramp the observatory would not have been possible, as it provides an ideal location from which to view the sky.

It also would not have been possible without an idea sparked nearly a decade ago, said Dr. Martin Johnston, chair of the UST Physics Department.  Johnston's late father, Ed, an avid amateur astronomer, and his mother, Pat, thought their telescope would be perfect for astronomy students at St. Thomas. So they gave their smaller telescope – it's a nonrobotic model with a 10-inch mirror – to the university, and it too will be a permanent part of the observatory. It's mounted on a lift designed by UST physics and engineering students, and can be rolled outside.

The larger Planewave telescope, mounted on a steel pier anchored to a support beam under the floor, is housed under a domed ceiling that can be opened from a computer in the control room or from a wall-mounted control panel next to the telescope. The domed room will not be heated or cooled, as air-temperature changes when the dome is open can cause enough turbulence to distort the telescope's image-capture.

Opportunities for education and discovery

Ruch and Johnston spearheaded the observatory project and anticipate that it will, above all, serve as a tool for science literacy and education. Ruch believes “that in order to engage in public discourse, (people) need to understand the process of science” and that “it’s vitally important that we get science education to the forefront.”

Dr. Marisa Kelly, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, echoes Ruch: “This observatory is an exciting opportunity to significantly impact science education across the region.” In this vein, the observatory will be used by students at St. Thomas as well as area schools and, potentially, organizations interested in using the telescope for science education.

The Physics Department and St. Thomas' School of Education hope that eventually area school groups will visit the observatory in person as well as online. Special software can facilitate remote operation of the telescope from classrooms via the Internet.

Kelly adds, “In fact, we already are working with one local high school, Cretin-Derham Hall, to enhance its astronomy program.”

The observatory also will be used by education majors at St. Thomas to develop science lesson plans for K-12 students, and St. Thomas physics students will be able to conduct more sophisticated experiments.

Ruch, who will manage the observatory, hopes to train students to operate the telescope over the next year so that they will be able to staff the observatory, give tours to the community and train other students to operate the telescope. He also looks forward to be the first to give a few community tours himself.

The telescope, Johnston and Ruch believe, "is a natural excitement generator" that will help spark conversation and curiosity about the process of scientific discovery. Ruch envisions himself seizing these moments to educate observatory guests on, for instance, “how a star blew up and the historical steps that brought us to that point of understanding,” as they gaze at images from space.

For more information about the St. Thomas Observatory, contact Ruch,  (651) 962-5207, or Johnston, (651) 962-5214.