New Observatory is Frosting on the Cake for Center for the Sciences and Agriculture

May 17, 2017

A tradition that predates Homecoming, intercollegiate athletics and Greek Life at Wilmington College was renewed this academic year when a final touch on the Center for the Sciences and Agriculture featured the installation of a new astronomical observatory.

Less than a dozen years after the College’s founding in 1870, students raised $200 for WC’s first telescope, an essentially homemade instrument that served the College well until the mid-20th century, when a new 16-inch reflector telescope was installed on the roof of Kettering Science Center in 1966.

Fast-forward 50 years to the present.

(PHOTO) Dr. Esmail Hejazifar, professor of physics, shows an astronomy student, junior Jonathan Cesare, the new telescope and observatory structure on the CSA roof. Students will view the heavens through the telescope from the comfort of their classroom.

A new telescope again graces a new facility. It too features a 16-inch mirror, but gone is the required trek up the steps of the cold observatory on clear winter nights to, one-by-one, look into the eyepiece for viewing the heavens. Rather, Dr. Esmail Hejazifar, professor of physics, controls the telescope by computer from his classroom, CSA 310 — call it Mission Control — where students there can view Venus and Mars projected onto a large screen or from the monitors of computers literally anywhere on Earth.

“It’s much more meaningful and exciting seeing Jupiter’s red spot or the rings of Saturn live with their own eyes compared to having a picture in a textbook,” Hejazifar said.

“They are seeing these exactly how they look at that moment.”

The GPS-controlled computer has a catalog of coordinates for stars, planets, galaxies, constellations, etc., so by selecting, say, the Alpha Centauri three-star system, at a distance of 4.37 light years from Earth, the observatory shell on the CSA roof opens and the telescope automatically locks onto those stars and follows them for so long as viewers wish to gaze. It factors in the Earth’s rotation and other criteria that literally make heavenly bodies moving targets.

“The entire class is seeing the same thing at the same time,” Hejazifar added, noting that, when planning was underway for the CSA, he insisted that a new telescope be included — not only for an academic rationale, but also for tradition. “It is a longtime symbol of the College.”

Indeed, in 1882, students Reynold Janney and Milton Farquhar raised funds to purchase or have fabricated the parts of a telescope. With the assistance and encouragement of their mathematics professor, Levi T. Edwards, they purchased a 12-inch reflecting lens before having the local Farquhar Furnace Company craft the telescope’s brass barrel and all the hardware that held it together. Champion Bridge fashioned the huge pedestal on a lathe.

The College initially stored the telescope in Teacher Ellen C. Wright’s (Class of 1875) Latin classroom for ease of maneuvering outside for viewing. After two years, in 1884, the telescope was housed in a wooden observatory structure in what then was the middle of campus on the current site of the Simon Goodman Memorial Carillon.

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