Monday, February 22, 2010
Stargazing at SDSU
A first-class observatory for faculty, students and the community
SDSU Observatory at Mt. Laguna
What started out as a lone telescope on a mountain top nearly 50 years ago has turned into a top-notch, research-grade astronomical observatory—the only facility of its type in the California State University.
Shortly after the establishment of San Diego State’s astronomy department in 1960, a temporary field station was set up 45 miles east of campus on Mount Laguna. There, on Monument Peak, a roll-off-roof shed was built to house a telescope with a 16-inch-diameter mirror.
The need for a permanent observatory soon became apparent. Financed by state and federal support, construction began on leased land in the Cleveland National Forest. With faculty, staff and students pitching in, SDSU’s Mount Laguna Observatory
was completed in 1968, and the 24-inch Clifford Smith Telescope was installed.
Two major construction projects undertaken in the 1980s advanced the mission of the observatory. The first was a new building to house a 40-inch telescope relocated from the University of Illinois to be operated jointly with SDSU. The second was the Harrington Visitor’s Center with an auditorium, museum and support facilities to complement the 21-inch Reginald F. Buller (visitor’s) Telescope.
Initial funds for the visitor’s center came from an estate gift by former SDSU science librarian Awona W. Harrington (1917–1984). Faculty and staff in the College of Sciences raised additional funds, obtained donations of construction materials and volunteered their labor.
Currently, the observatory serves as a unique and valuable resource for students, professors and the public. Undergraduate astronomy students get to experience the dark skies of a remote observatory while peering through the Buller Telescope.
The three research telescopes at the observatory are used to train both undergraduate and graduate astronomy majors who advance to Ph.D. programs or go on to find employment in education, observatory support, the aerospace industry and NASA labs.
Mount Laguna Observatory also continues to play a role in various NASA missions, including the Kepler Mission. Bill Welsh, SDSU astronomy professor and a Kepler Participating Scientist with NASA, has spent many hours there, obtaining observations to help determine the characteristics of newly discovered planets around other stars.
San Diego State is now teaming up with the University of Kansas to install a new 48-inch telescope at the observatory that will specialize in wide field imaging. It will be placed in the original research dome built on Mount Laguna—a tribute of sorts to the observatory’s first resident telescope.