Months of planning, preparation and hard work are paying off for Jeffrey Sabby. The assistant professor of physics is putting the final touches on an automated roboscope observatory, near Prairie Hall on the main campus. Sabby has been spearheading the project for the past several years, securing grants and other funding to see that the structure is built.
"The observatory will provide a new research avenue for the Department of Physics," he said. "Through this project, SIUE will enter an elite group of universities that own and operate fully automated astronomical observatories for both education and research purposes."
The observatory is a 25-foot tall, two-story block and metal structure designed by Sabby. It houses a Ritchey-Chrétien optical design telescope, built by RC Optical Systems of Arizona. This high-end telescope provides a large viewing field with little distortion and allows researchers to see a wide view of the electromagnetic spectral range, from ultraviolet to long-wave infrared. A special CCD (charge-coupled device) camera captures 30 times more light than a traditional film camera.
One unusual feature of the observatory is that the telescope is controlled off-site through a robotic telescope mount connected to two Apple computers. According to Sabby, this allows the telescope to be controlled remotely from "anywhere in the world that has a stable Internet connection." It also means that observation will not be hindered by factors such as cold weather, which can be uncomfortable for stargazers, and the observatory will be more accessible to persons with disabilities.
"This project is a powerful educational, research, and recruitment tool that will be used to attract incoming students to SIUE and the Physics Department by offering exciting educational opportunities through astronomy and the roboscope," Sabby said.
Sabby will oversee the SIUE site and the telescope's operation. The automated observatory will provide unlimited new astronomical research possibilities in areas such as binary and multiple stars, asteroids, extrasolar planets, and quasars. These opportunities will directly benefit SIUE students. Physics majors will be able to use the observatory for junior- and senior-level research projects, and plans are in the works to expand SIUE's astronomy curriculum by adding a concentration in that area. When that takes place, students in that program would be able to use the new telescope to enhance their studies.
The roboscope telescope also could be a focal point in an outreach program with local high schools, Sabby said. This could serve as a good recruitment tool for the physics department.
SIUE's roboscope observatory is the third such facility that Sabby has built. The first was in his own backyard and served as a prototype for a larger one he built as a graduate student at the University of Arkansas. He has secured more than $400,000 in grants for the project at SIUE, and spent a tremendous amount of time, energy and his own money to get the observatory built here.
Additional equipment is needed to complete the roboscope observatory. As technology changes, computers and other equipment will need to be replaced. Classroom enhancement material also will be needed, and maintenance and repairs will require funding. The Campaign for Excellence has a goal of raising $75,000, and a permanent endowment of $125,000 will provide for long-range operation of the site.
SIUE has had an observatory site on the northern edge of campus for decades that continues to be an integral part of the physics program. The William C. Shaw Sky Lab opened in 1978 to honor the late professor who was a pioneer faculty member in that department. The site serves as an outdoor classroom for the PHYS 118 Astronomy class, and is open to the general public.
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