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Volume 37 Issue Three • May 3 - 16, 2007 now in our 37th season

A Dream Come True

The Maria Mitchell Association (MMA) took a big step toward ushering in a new era of astronomical research and public outreach programs on Nantucket this month when the nonprofit organization’s new 24-inch research grade telescope was installed late last month at Loines Observatory.

Weighing more than 1,500 pounds, the telescope and operating systems were hoisted into place by crane through the observatory dome’s 42” wide slit.  Installation of the instrument at the observatory, which is located at 59 Milk Street Extension, took place under the direction of Dr. Vladimir Strelnitski, MMA Director of Astronomy.   

Dr. Strelnitski, a specialist in astrophysics, has been with the MMA for a decade, and the installation of this telescope at Loines is the culmination of many years of work.  “As soon as I came to this observatory,” he explained, “I felt with all my gut feelings that this observatory needs a new research grade telescope...I started to work on this from my first days.”

Among other noted achievements, the Maria Mitchell Association is widely known for its program to teach undergraduate astrophysics via doing live research.  Each year more than 100 students compete for just 6 available positions at MMA, “we can select the best of the best from all over the country,” commended Dr. Strelnitski.  Each summer Dr. Strelnitski and his astronomy interns would travel to Lowell Observatory and Kitts Peak in Arizona and to Haystack Observatory near Westford, MA to conduct live observations of variable galaxies.  But the time was always short and never guaranteed from year to year.  “What we have now is a very good quality research telescope of our own so we can observe as much as we want...We’ll have more than enough time...our problem now will be getting enough time to reduce the observations.”

Dr. Strelniski and the MMA addressed the National Science Foundation three times for the monies needed to obtain and install a research grade telescope.  “On the third time we got the money,” said Dr. Strelnitski.

The first monies obtained funded construction of a second dome at the observatory in which to place the public telescope so that the big telescope could be placed in the large dome.  Then, when the MMA was ready to make their purchase, the ideal telescope appeared on the market.  “Just one...It was absolutely excellent,” said Dr. Strelnitski, “and even bigger in diameter than the one we had planned.  We had applied for a 20-inch telescope.”

The 24” research telescope was purchased with funds from a $294,000 grant provided by the National Science Foundation’s PREST program (Program for Research and Education with Small Telescopes).  NSF’s grant to MMA is an important recognition of the organization’s capacity to contribute to the study of astronomy and welcomes the MMA back to the network of research observatories.  Further financial support for the telescope project is pending once MMA has met the requirements for a matching grant from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Fund for Engineering, Technology and Science. Response to the match requirement has been steady and includes gifts and pledges from the Tupancy-Harris Foundation, the MMA Board of Managers, several Nantucket businesses and former Astronomy research students. 

“This is an exciting time for MMA’s astronomy program,” stated MMA Executive Director Janet Schulte. “The arrival of the 24” research telescope will re-establish the ability to do observational research under Nantucket’s dark skies — an activity we haven’t had on-island since the mid-1990s... We’ve also taken this opportunity to refurbish the 8” Clark telescope which hadn’t had an overhaul in nearly 40 years.  We’ll have a fine, clean, and freshly painted and polished telescope for public nights.”

MMA’s open night program series at Loines Observatory, regularly held on Friday evenings to provide guided tours of the constellations and observations through telescopes, will resume at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 11 when a public opening will be held to view the new research telescope and the restored 8” Clark telescope re-installed at the observatory.

Founded in 1902, the Maria Mitchell Association is dedicated to furthering science education, encouraging women in science, and serving as a science resource for Nantucket. The mission of the science and history-based education, preservation and research institution is to explore, educate about and enjoy Nantucket's land, waters and the skies beyond.  In fulfilling its mission, the Maria Mitchell Association uses the unique natural environment of Nantucket as a resource to encourage inquiring minds and builds upon the scientific and pedagogical achievements of Maria Mitchell, a native of Nantucket who was America’s first woman astronomer and first female astronomy professor.

The first thing Dr. Strelnitski and his staff did with the new research grade telescope was to point it at Saturn.  “We looked at Saturn, then immediately at the Sombrero Galaxy, and it took a beautiful picture of this,” he said with excitement in his voice.  “Then we got an image of the moon — it was in a good phase, first quarter — and with this telescope we viewed the Maria Mitchell crater on the moon.”

“It is such a thrill, this telescope,” continued Dr. Strelnitski.  “It is one of  the rare cases in a lifetime that a dream came true.”

These photos of the new 24-inch telescope being hoisted into place and installed at the Loines Observatory are reprinted courtesy of the Maria Mitchell Association. 

The images of the moon, of a nebula, and of the galaxy are several of the first photos taken by Dr. Vladimir Strelnitski, MMA Director of Astronomy, using the telescope from its new home on Nantucket.

Friday, May 11, the MMA is inviting the public to an open house to get a first-hand look at the 24-inch research grade telescope.  The event will begin at 7 p.m. with tours of the observatory, followed by a presentation by Dr. Vladimir Strelnitski, MMA Directory of Astronomy at 8 p.m., and weather permitting, telescopic observations at 8:30 p.m. through the research telescope as well as through the newly refurbished 8-inch Clark telescope housed in the observatory’s second dome.

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