The massive telescope that sits atop the Haggerty Science Center is so much a part of the University of Dallas campus that it tends to be overlooked and underappreciated.
The Kerry Martin memorial telescope and the rounded dome that encases it have been a part of the university since 1987 and exist as an ever-present symbol of a small but much-loved astronomy program.
Senior Mark Rodriguez recalls the excitement present in 2003 when UD held an event to observe Mars in its closest ever orbit to earth.
“The lines for the observatory have never been as long as they were that night. The telescope here at UD and any telescope, for that matter, is a way for those who don’t have extensive knowledge of astronomy to appreciate the beauty of the night sky,” Rodriguez said.
But as technology in the astronomical sphere improves, there are increasing questions about whether the iconic telescope and dome are necessary.
“The new development and spread of robotic telescopes has given rise to ‘room research,’ in which students can view images away from the physical site of the telescope,” professor of physics Dr. Richard Olenick said.
The flexibility and accuracy of this type of development within the field of astronomy is understandably attractive to university research and observation, and UD especially has had a growing interest in this fast-paced evolution of technology.
UD’s 16-foot telescope is still a decent size. But the campus and the region have changed so much since it was installed that it no longer serves the purpose it once did.
“The light pollution makes it impossible to perform research here,” Olenick said.
The last two summers, UD students used the Monroe Robotic Observatory at the University of North Texas (UNT), he said.
A colleague of Olenick who works at UNT made use of the Monroe Robotic Observatory possible. But the telescope is located right along the state line of Oklahoma, an area where weather conditions are not ideal for observation.
“There is another privately owned telescope in west Texas that was offered to the University of Dallas for a small amount, but the offer was rescinded at the last minute in hopes that a better deal would come along,” Olenick said. “Since a better offer did not appear, we are now in the process of negotiation.”
Rodriguez has a similar view of the telescope situation here on campus, however dear the UD telescope is to him and other students who have worked closely with it.
“I think it would be excellent if we were able to get more consistent access to a telescope observatory in another location for research because of the usefulness of good images,” Rodriguez said.
The future of UD’s telescope is uncertain. The telescope in West Texas is a possibility, and Olenick still holds out hope that the Monroe Robotic Observatory may be donated to UD in the future.
“I could see how learning to use a remote telescope to take images could be a fun and interesting exercise for the lab portion of the class,” Rodriguez said.
In spite of this uncertainty, the astronomy program is still flourishing and maintains connection with other academic institutions at observation conferences all across the globe.
“I am chairing a session in Prague this summer at a conference of robotic research for undergraduate students,” Olenick said. “I plan to send students to a conference for robotic research in San Diego as well.”
In addition to making these opportunities available, Olenick has personally led student trips to Russia over the summer for observation and research.
He hopes a connection from the San Diego conference will open up even more international opportunities, such as a “telescope swap” program.
“One of the sponsors for the San Diego conference works at a university in Australia,” Olenick said. “It would be ideal if we could negotiate a way to swap telescope time, especially since we would see images from another time zone across the globe.”
However, in order to make this type of swap possible, UD must first have access to a stable robotic telescope, which will hopefully be available sometime in the near future.
“The University of North Texas may be getting rid of their telescope, and we are interested in figuring out whether or not we can get it.” he said.
The telescope on the UD campus is a perfectly accurate tool for astronomical observation, but the light pollution makes it difficult to use to its full potential.
For the time being, the telescope will remain atop the Haggerty Science building at a minimum maintenance cost and will remain a tool for basic observation in the popular astronomy course offered in the core curriculum.
The future of UD’s telescope rights may be uncertain, but the increasing interest in astronomy on campus will no doubt help to pave the way for future astronomical advancements.