Exponent Explains: AJM’s telescopes

MSU’s physics department used to be located in AJM Johnson Hall, which was named after Arthur J. M. Johnson, the head of the physics department from 1930 to 1961. The department occupied the entire building, including the roof where the astronomy lab is located.

When the physics department moved to the Engineering and Physical Sciences building in 1997, the roof of AJM Johnson Hall remained the home of the astronomy lab. The roof is the main location for the use of the MSU’s telescopes although — since AJM Johnson Hall is only a two-story building — the viewing area is affected by light pollution. To avoid this effect, telescope users can transport the instruments with support equipment to a place where their view of the sky is not obscured.

Student labs that complement coursework make up the majority of the telescope use. MSU offers three astronomy courses to undergraduate students: Introduction to Astronomy (ASTR 110IN); Solar System Astronomy (ASTR 371) and Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe (ASTR 373). Students enrolled in ASTR 371 and ASTR 373 use MSU’s telescopes in their lab work. These courses are available to any interested students, even those outside of the physics department. The prerequisite for each is Physics I and the corequisite is Physics II; anyone who has completed these courses is eligible to take ASTR 371 and ASTR 373. The labs take place once a week, usually after 6 p.m.

While this is their primary use, the telescopes serve other purposes as well. According to Jerry DiMarco, manager of lecture demonstrations and instructional labs for MSU’s physics department, the telescopes are occasionally available for public use through outreach programs. The programs may be designated for a specific audience or they may be open to the general public. Public events may be hosted for special occasions, such as a celebration of Galileo’s birthday.

Graduate students have utilized the telescopes for research in the past, but DiMarco explained that this is not common due to the nature of astronomical research. Researchers in this field view a feed from a charge-coupled device (CCD) camera mounted upon a telescope, which can be located far away. This technology makes it unnecessary for a researcher to be near his or her telescope in order to collect data.

Most of MSU’s telescopes are a kind of reflecting telescope called a Schmidt-Cassegrain and have an eight-inch diameter. DiMarco said the variety of telescopes at MSU ranges from a 4-inch refractor to a 17.5-inch reflector called a Dobsonian. The telescopes have been purchased over time according to department needs and funding and they will continue to be replaced and updated when necessary.