The universe is now coming into focus through Frostburg State University’s Observatory, where stunning images from the rooftop observatory are now being projected on the FSU Planetarium and Multimedia Learning Center’s dome screen during shows.
The Observatory, located on the roof of the Gira Center for Communications and Information Technology, features a robotically mounted 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with attachable cameras to capture deep space images and planets in amazing detail.
“Its large aperture allows you to view very faint objects,” said Dr. Jason Speights, associate director of the FSU Planetarium and MLC. “At the same time, it’s capable of high magnification, so the planets can be seen in great detail.”
Pictures showing Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s lasagna-like belts and much more are now being featured during FSU Planetarium shows and could not have been done without FSU students, who continue to fine-tune the equipment.
Dustin Ullery, of Cumberland; Tyler Ram, of Bethesda; and recent alumnus Paul Rooke, of North East, all helped set up the observatory and other newly purchased planetarium equipment as part of a special projects course. The students also help produce and host planetarium shows.
“I’ve grown up looking at all these pictures, but being up here on the roof and getting the images myself made it a lot more tangible,” said Ullery, who is double majoring in physics and mathematics. “I think it’s a better learning experience overall for the students to see what’s going on in the planetarium and in the universe with our own eyes.”
Testing the equipment, which included aligning the telescope with the sky, calibrating its positioning, looking through image data and wiring the telescope to computers, meant some freezing nights atop the Gira Center roof at 3 a.m., when initial work took place during the winter. Ram couldn’t imagine being anywhere better.
“Not a lot of people get to use this beautiful telescope to see things that no man is supposed to see,” said Ram, a physics and engineering double major, with a concentration in electrical engineering.
Creating images of nebulas and star clusters from the telescope isn’t as simple as a point-and-shoot camera.
Students sifted through stacks of data and matrices to not only find the right images, but used the information to understand the physics of space. Using programs named AstroPix and RegiStax, Ullery, Ram and Rooke would spend minutes to hours culling data from Flexible Image Transport System files to process images and calibrate the equipment.
“I’d have 1,000 to 2,000 pictures of Jupiter, and I’d have to hand pick it and use RegiStax where it takes the good pictures, gets rid of the bad ones and presses them together to make a good image,” Ram said. “That was one of the biggest challenges to make those pictures look like they looked through the telescope.”
Ullery appreciated that both students and faculty worked with some newer programs and equipment neither had experienced.
“We all had to figure it out together,” he said. “It was nice to have a one-on-one relationship with faculty that worked with this stuff before, but not these exact things, so we could see how they adapted to information that they didn’t understand. It really helped us to adapt to situations with new technology.”
Speights never tires of witnessing students’ reactions from seeing objects in space for the first time.
“They would kind of trip out over that,” he said, laughing. “There were some moments where they would spaz out when they got an image or see something for the first time with their unaided eye.”
Ram has had one or two of those moments.
“I can see that horizon with trees, and I can’t see anything past that,” Ram said pointing to Big Savage Mountain from the Gira Center roof. “Yet, I can step five feet in here and see millions of light years away. It’s like having a superpower.”
FSU’s 77-seat Planetarium and Multimedia Learning Center is on the first floor of the Gira Center and offers free shows on Sundays at 4 and 7 p.m. Special shows are also scheduled throughout the year. For a complete schedule and directions, visit www.frostburg.edu/mlc.