|The dome-shaped building that houses RIT’s 12-inch Meade telescope on an Astro Pier mount.
Just a short trek past Colony Manor lies 645 John St. A rather unassuming building with white siding and matching green-and-white awnings, nothing about it conjures up images of anything particularly extraordinary. But in the backyard is an unusual sight: two large metallic silos enclosed within a large fence. Inside are two telescopes large enough to clearly photograph planets, stars and the occasional supernova.
The RIT Observatory is one of the Institute’s hidden jewels. It houses a staff enthusiastic about stars, planets and all other things space. Over the past 19 years, the observatory has provided RIT students with a unique glimpse at the sky above them.
Just beyond the edge of campus, the observatory remains an obscure destination. “It’s not in the middle of campus, you could go right past it without noticing,” says Dr. Michael Richmond, a physics professor and the director of the observatory. After joining the physics department in 1997, Richmond quickly became interested in the observatory. “I got a job, and once I was here, I said, ‘Oh, you’ve got an observatory,” he recalls, “and because I’m an
astronomer, I wanted to use it.”
At the time, the observatory was located in the heart of campus, at a facility constructed in 1992. “It was located in what is now the area of Global Village,” says Richmond, “at that time it was still a region with trees and grass.” Shortly after his arrival, an expanding campus led to the observatory’s relocation in 1998.
The old facility was marred by a light pollution problem. “Observatories require dark skies, and the center of campus doesn’t have dark skies,” explains Richmond. When choosing a new home, a special effort was made to minimize ambient light while remaining close to campus. After surveying many potential locations, the team settled on their present site on John Street.
An Academic Affair
The RIT Observatory consists of three main buildings. The first, a house, serves as classroom space, as well as a means of blocking light from the street. The second, a dome-shaped building, contains a 12-inch telescope; while the third, a longer building, holds a 14-inch telescope.
As Rochester’s notoriously bad weather limits research, the observatory’s primary focus is education. “The physics department teaches two courses every fall and spring,” says Richmond. As RIT requires a lab science, a corresponding lab is taught at the observatory. “There are over 100 students every year who take that lab class, and that’s probably the primary use of the observatory,” he says.
In addition to RIT students, local schools occasionally schedule group trips to the observatory. In the summer, spring and fall, when weather is optimal, the observatory sometimes holds open houses.
However, it’s winter now, and with winter comes poor observational weather. As Richmond explains, “It’s one of the features of the Rochester area — that the weather is always cloudy in the winter — so we don’t schedule events at night in the winter.”
Cloudy skies are only one of the many problems that RIT’s observatory faces. Rochester’s harsh climate is far from an ideal home for an observatory. Despite the challenges, the crew remains committed.
Although the move has certainly alleviated much of the previous location’s lighting problems, they can never be completely resolved. “We are only eight miles or so from the downtown ... so the skies are pretty bright,” says Richmond. “It’s actually brighter if there are clouds because then all the parking lot lights and city lights bounce off the clouds.”
Rochester’s geography provides more challenges than bright and cloudy skies. Rochester is a windy city, and turbulent air reduces image clarity. As Richmond explains, “the light gets bent and refracted as it goes through the air currents, and then everything gets blurry.”
Despite the environmental complications, Richmond and his crew remain undeterred. “So basically, this is one of the worst places to put a telescope,” he says, “yet we have a telescope here ... There’s still some research carried out here, even with all [the disadvantages].”
Due to these environmental shortcomings, the observatory works under a tight set of technological constraints. “We can’t see really faint things, and we can’t see really fine detail in stars or planets; but what we can see is the light from relatively bright … isolated stars,” says Richmond.
In particular, they’re interested in binary star systems, where two stars revolve around each other in a close orbit. “It’s easy to measure that change in brightness as one star blocks the other and then unblocks it,” he explains.
Although these stars remain relatively normal in their fluctuations, breaks in this pattern can lead to bizarre, unexplainable behavior. “Every couple of years … one particular star will, for reasons we don’t yet understand, shed a whole bunch of mass, [which] will get transferred to the other star,” says Richmond. “And for a couple of weeks, there’s a whole lot of action.”
In order to ensure these opportunities don’t go unnoticed, RIT has partnered with a number of institutions worldwide in a massive, collaborative observation cycle. “We have colleagues in Minnesota, Arizona, [and] California who make measurements when we have to stop because the star is setting in Rochester.” Richmond lists off other, more distant locations, some as far away as Japan.
To measure these fluctuations in brightness, pictures are taken at regular intervals during an observational period, which usually lasts roughly six hours. “What we do at the observatory probably won’t make any ‘National Geographic’ articles,” says Richmond. “When you say astronomy, a lot of people think giant, pretty pictures taken from the Hubble space telescope, and the research we do doesn’t involve any of those.”
Back in graduate school, Richmond studied supernovae. In a way, the unpredictability of supernovae defines his current research. As he says, “It’s been 500 years since there was a supernova in our own galaxy bright enough to see with the naked eye; it could happen tomorrow.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge is the wait. “I can’t predict when [this will] happen for any particular star, and neither can anybody else,” says Richmond. “We’re at the mercy of chance.” So for now, Richmond and his colleagues stay diligent, waiting for the next big break in a surprisingly small universe.