An Eye on the Sky

By: Mark Tarnacki

Telescopes - big ones, little ones, near and far - are a familiar topic of conversation with physics professor John O'Meara.

"I was in Chile at Las Campanas Observatory, and the second night, October 6, was the best observing conditions I've ever had on the ground. Ever," he says of the coveted time that he applies for and frequently is awarded at Las Campanas, home of one of the world's best and most powerful telescopes. He is collecting data at the site in Chile and at other observatories for his ongoing study of galaxy formation. Once or twice a year each, O'Meara says, he travels to Las Campanas, or to Hawaii's Keck Observatory, where in recent years a student was able to join him for data collection.

Though no students made it to Chile on his last trip, "my physics students got to enjoy a video session over the computer from the summit," he says. "They got to actually see me there in a silly video, running under the primary mirrors to give them a sense of scale."

O'Meara says he might use data he gathered in Chile for future astronomy classes, though he's unsure how until the information gets processed. "The data we took was superb in quality because the sky was so good. Whether that translates into a scientific discovery remains to be seen, but the raw data is as good as it can get from the ground," he says. He has a January trip to Hawaii to use the Keck for more observations.

"The Chile telescope I just used is the best ground-based telescope for imaging. The Keck is the biggest boy in town and hard to beat with the technology and size, but if you want to take pictures of the sky, as I was doing, it's better on the average in Chile."

Such far-flung, cutting-edge technology in optimal observing conditions is a far cry from the college's own astronomical facility, the Holcomb Observatory, the small, curious-looking red-brick domed building that sits alone and mostly unvisited in a field near the Fire and Rescue station. But the Holcomb telescope still works, O'Meara says, and he's taken classes out there every so often.

Despite some drawbacks, it's a great resource, he says. "It's right near Route 15 with all the passing lights, and there's the night lights of Burlington on the horizon, plus it has giant trees behind it, so the view is obfuscated in several major ways, but it still functions. So I take students at night to look at the sky, the moon, planets."

"It would be nice if we could just drop the observatory in the Mount Mansfield-facing field down from the rocks around the corner, or better yet, put the telescope on top of a building somewhere, but that's not happening," he says with a smile.

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