Tag Archive for Astronomy

Van Vleck Observatory Celebrates Centennial with Exhibition, Event Series

Wesleyan’s iconic observatory dome was built to house the Van Vleck Refractor, used in research until the early 1990s. Photo by John Van Vlack.

Wesleyan’s iconic observatory dome was built to house the Van Vleck Refractor, used in research until the early 1990s. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

The building was named for Professor John Monroe Van Vleck, who taught mathematics and astronomy at Wesleyan from 1853 until his death in 1912.

The building was named for Professor John Monroe Van Vleck, who taught mathematics and astronomy at Wesleyan from 1853 until his death in 1912.

Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory is celebrating its centennial this spring, with a series of events and an exhibition beginning in early May.

On May 6, the observatory’s library will reopen to the public with an exhibition on the history of astronomy at Van Vleck. Developed by a team of faculty, students, and staff, the exhibition will use the observatory’s extensive collection of scientific instruments, teaching materials, photographs, drawings, and correspondence to illustrate both the changes in astronomical research and teaching over the past century, and the observatory’s consistent mission of conducting instruction and research under the same roof. The exhibition will incorporate the history of science into Van Vleck’s existing public outreach programs through period lectures, demonstrations of historic artifacts, and gallery talks.

“The Millionaire” Mechanical Calculator. Useful for determining distances to stars, this late 19th-century calculator had high precision (eight significant figures) and is still in perfect working order. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

“The Millionaire” Mechanical Calculator. Useful for determining distances to stars, this late 19th century calculator had high precision (eight significant figures) and is still in perfect working order. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

The exhibition was spearheaded by Roy Kilgard, support astronomer and research associate professor of astronomy, Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, associate professor of integrative sciences, Amrys Williams, visiting assistant professor of history, and Paul Erickson, associate professor of history, associate professor of environmental studies, associate professor of science in society.

More events are planned in the run-up to the exhibition opening. On May 1, the Wesleyan Orchestra will hold a concert featuring astronomically themed music, including John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis, which was composed using star charts from the Van Vleck Observatory library. On May 3, Special Collections & Archives will host an exhibition, “A Stellar Education: Astronomy at Wesleyan, 1831-1916.” Located on the first floor of Olin Library, the exhibition documents the study of astronomy at Wesleyan from the university’s opening through the construction of the Van Vleck Observatory. On May 4, the History Department is hosting David DeVorkin, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, who will give a talk situating Van Vleck in the history of American observatories.

Astronomy Students Present Research at KNAC Symposium

The 26th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC) was held at Williams College on Oct. 17.

Five students presented results of their summer research: Julian Dann ’17, Aylin Garcia Soto ’18, and Girish Duvvuri ’17 delivered oral presentations while Rachel Aronow ’17 and Avi Stein ’17 presented a poster. Several other students came along to enjoy the weekend, which featured a dinner and social event on Friday night, the seminar on Saturday and breakout sessions on such topics as Inclusive Astronomy and how/why to program in Python.

More than 100 students and faculty from KNAC attended the event (pictured below):

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Women in Science Hosts Stargazing, Hot Chocolate Night

Wesleyan’s Women in Science (WIS) gathered at the Van Vleck Observatory on Oct. 8 for “Starry Night,” an evening of stargazing, conversation and hot chocolate. Participants used the Astronomy Department’s 16-inch Fiducia telescope to view the night sky. (Photos by Ryan Heffernan ’16)

Students gather at the Van Vleck Observatory on October 8, 2015 for stargazing and hot chocolate sponsored by the Astronomy department.

Students gather at the Van Vleck Observatory on October 8, 2015 for stargazing and hot chocolate sponsored by the Astronomy department.

Wesleyan’s Astronomical History featured in Astronomy Magazine

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Astronomy magazine has an in-depth feature in its October issue on Wesleyan’s astronomical history and the restoration of its century-old, 20-inch refractor telescope, just in time for the Van Vleck Observatory’s centennial observation this spring.

Telescopes like Wesleyan’s 28-foot-long, two-ton refractor had once been cutting edge, and a source of pride for dozens of American universities. But as they “staggered into obsolescence” over the past half century, institutions have had to make tough choices about whether to renovate or retire them. In 2014, Wesleyan hired Chris Ray and Fred Orthlieb of Pennsylvania to give its refractor a second life.

The story traces the history of giant refractors through the 18th and 19th centuries, and Wesleyan’s acquisition of its own telescopes, and how they were used.

astronomymag2“Astronomical research and the teaching of students would go hand in hand at Wesleyan, [astronomer Frederick] Slocum told his audience (at the observatory’s dedication). But in an age of giant telescopes, even a 20-inch refractor was only modest. Worse still, New England’s weather is notoriously dreadful for astronomers. To make an impact, the Van Vleck Observatory would have to focus on a single fundamental question. By collaborating with Yerkes, England’s Royal Greenwich Observatory, and a consortium of other schools, Wesleyan researchers would measure parallaxes–a way to gauge how far away stars are through the tiny displacements in their positions caused by Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun. The astronomers would find the distances to the stars, Slocum said–and that’s exactly what they did.”

Wesleyan’s refractor was used to work on this problem from the 1920s through the 1990s, and it trained generations of young astronomers during that time. “In the 1950s, popularizer Walter Scott Houston peered through it to write his ‘Deep Sky Wonders’ column for Sky & Telescope.

Read the full story, which features a six-page spread of photos taken by Wesleyan photographers Olivia Drake MALS ’08 and Laurie Kenney, here.

Wesleyan Astronomers Detect Shock Waves from Exoplanet

Astronomers at Wesleyan have detected shock waves produced by a high-speed “hot Jupiter” exoplanet caught in a tight orbit around its host star, io9 reported. The story explains:

It’s a potential indication of an incredibly powerful magnetic field around the planet.
Also known as “roaster planets,” hot Jupiters are so named because they have many characteristics in common with the largest gas giant in our solar system, most notably mass. But they have much hotter surface temperatures because they orbit much closer to their parent stars.

Researcher in Astronomy Wilson Cauley has published a new study on the topic in the Astrophysical Journal. io9 quotes Cauley’s website:

If the planet is moving supersonically through the stellar wind or coronal plasma, a bow shock will form between the planet and the star at an angle that is determined by the relative velocity of the planet and the plasma. If the planet has a magnetosphere, the bow shock will form where the pressure between the plasma and the magnetosphere balance. For planets with strong magnetic fields, the bow shock can form many planetary radii ahead of the planet in it’s orbit. If the compression of the stellar wind material in the bow shock is high enough, the line-of-sight column density of material in the bow shock between us and the star can be high enough to produce a visible absorption signature in the stellar spectrum. This absorption signature occurs before the planet normally transits the star.