Rawlinson Observatory Renovation a Hit With Students, Community Stargazers

Rawlinson.jpgThe constellation known as Orion is a prominent feature of the night-time sky in late autumn and early winter, and those stars are brought into focus for Astronomy students at Ferris State University, and members of the community, thanks to a refurbished Rawlinson Observatory facility.

Its telescope, a Unitron manufactured in 1965, is the same six-inch refractor that the observatory has featured since it opened in the late 1960s, according to Thomas Brennan, an assistant professor of physical sciences, who serves as the unofficial curator.

“It is Japanese-made, and of high quality,” Brennan said. “It would cost at least $50,000 to replace it now.”

In August 2014, work began on the installation of a new drive for the telescope’s German-made mount, and to restore the rotational, and operational capabilities of the observatory’s dome. The facility had been idle for years, due to the dome’s state of repair. On Nov. 24, 2014, a ceremony was held to celebrate the grand re-opening of the facility, with David DeBruyn, director emeritus of Grand Rapids’ Chaffee Planetarium as their featured speaker.

Since that time, Brennan said that Ferris students and interested observers have taken part in seasonal events that are part of the Astronomy course, and the facility’s viewing schedule based on celestial activity. They are typically offered from 10 to 11 p.m., and Brennan said these events have drawn crowds of more than 100 people.

“I had a man visit who told me he had used the telescope when long-time director Tom Johnson offered observation nights,” Brennan said.

Johnson retired from the university in 2000, and Brennan began teaching at Ferris in 2014, following the retirement of Astronomy professor and observatory operator Phil Martell. Brennan said that giving Astronomy students and members of the community opportunities to view the star, Sirius, and the moon, is always rewarding.

“It kind of blows your mind when you see another world close up like that,” Brennan said.

The 2.5-meter telescope, along with its renovated mount, allows observers to track celestial bodies from east to west across the sky, with a magnification up to 800 times greater than the human eye. Astronomy students, faculty and staff of the university and those from the community are welcome to take part in the observatory’s viewing nights. Brennan said they’re likely to be surprised by the details they may find in the Moon’s surface, or the red and blue flashes of light that emanate from viewing Sirius.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Brennan said.

Ferris students, faculty and staff are kept abreast of the observatory’s schedule through the University-Wide Notice system. Brennan said he also announces observatory nights and presents other information on the facility’s Facebook page. The Rawlinson Observatory is located on the fourth floor of the Science Building, at 808 Campus Drive, in Big Rapids, Mich.

PHOTO CAPTION: Ferris State University’s Rawlinson Observatory has been hosting enthusiastic crowds for viewing events in the last year, following work to repair the dome that began in August, 2014.