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Sunday, Dec 4, 2022

Science Spotlight: BiHall's New Telescope Operator

When I tell people I go to Middlebury, the second most frequent question I’m asked, after “Where is that?” is, in its blunt variation, “Why did you chose a school in the middle of nowhere?” One of my friends from the West Coast once remarked sarcastically that he chose to come to Middlebury because it’s “centrally located”. But, besides him, most of the people I’ve talked to view Middlebury as the epitome of remote and many wonder why someone would select so rural a school.

My go-to response is to mention the ability to see the stars. Some of my favorite moments here have been star-gazing with friends or learning the names of constellations for an astronomy class. Night light is the downside of city night life and light pollution can make star-gazing in a city difficult.

Star-gazing with the unaided eye is an awe-inspiring experience in and of itself, but now all students at the College will also have the opportunity to gaze further into the depths of the cosmos with the help of the 24-inch telescope in McCardell Bicentennial Hall. The school recently announced that it will start holding open observatory nights again after a yearlong hiatus.

The recent arrival of Middlebury’s new Telescope Specialist, Jonathan Kemp, will make the public observatory nights possible. Kemp will also work closely with astronomy classes and student researchers to aid their use of the telescope.

“In the past, there have been a combination of faculty members who have put effort into the observatory” Kemp explained, “but now the idea is that I’ll be dedicated to the observatory and we’ll be able to better integrate the observatory with both curricular needs and student research. We’ll also be able to revive the public observing nights, make them more frequent, and extend our public outreach programs to school visits or local groups. There’s a lot of possibility and it’s all pretty exciting.”

The first observing night will be during preview days. Kemp plans on holding more during the summer and next fall. During open observatory nights, he will operate the large telescope and set up four smaller telescopes on the roof of the buiding.

When asked about some of the astronomical objects that he will be showing, he said that “there are a lot of possibilities. The moon, though sometimes offensive because of the light pollution that it causes, is a great target. People who have never seen the moon through a telescope before find its surface and craters fantastic. Looking at Jupiter and Saturn and Mars is quite interesting. You can see the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. Those are all good. And there’s a set of deeper sky objects like globular clusters, nebula and galaxies that we’ll also look at.

The College’s telescope is the latest in a long list of telescopes that Kemp has worked with. When he attended Columbia University, he used telescopes situated around the world.

“At Middlebury we can do small telescope research but really not such much at Columbia because of light pollution,” he said. “So when I was at Columbia, while we could do some public outreach with the telescope, almost all the research was done elsewhere. So I travelled to Arizona, Chile and to South Africa to use their professional telescopes.”

In 2000, Kemp moved to Hawaii to work with the James Clerk Maxwell telescope, the largest telescope that investigates radiation in the infrared and microwave regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“I did a variety of things to help operate the telescope. I observed with the telescope, wrote programs and software, and did computing support and graphic design. There was always a lot to do which is something that I like.”

I was curious to know the place and purpose of Middlebury’s telescope in the context of the astronomical world. A lot of attention is focused on larger telescopes such as the Hubble telescope or its future successor the John Web telescope but research is done on telescopes of all sizes. I asked Kemp where Middlebury’s telescope fits in.

“A lot of people say bigger is better in respect to telescope and mirror size, and with some science that is true.” Kemp said. “There are faint objects in the sky such as stars, galaxies, quasars, etc that you can’t see with this telescope. But you can still do science, and in the move to larger telescopes and complexity a lot of people who study astronomy don’t get the opportunity to operate a telescope and when you have a small telescope you have an intimate hands on experience of learning how to operate the telescope. When you combine that with a spirit of scientific inquiring of asking questions and getting data a lot can still be accomplished.”

An additional upside to the observation nights is that the roof of BiHall will be open for naked eye star-gazing. As the highest point on campus, the top of BiHall provides a spectacular night-sky panorama that is unrivaled on campus.

“There are a lot of things you can appreciate with our 24 inch telescope and the smaller telescopes,” Kemp said, “but its also great to have that visceral and connected experience of just standing out in a rural area at night with the Milky Way above and identifying the constellations.”
Kemp will be launching a new observatory website and posting a schedule of events in the coming months. Come to one of the events to experience one of the perks of living in the middle of nowhere