University of Iowa dedicates observatory to James Van Allen

Professors hope to 'hook' students on science

People take photos of the telescopes inside the new James Van Allen Observatory on the roof of Van Allen hall in Iowa Ci
People take photos of the telescopes inside the new James Van Allen Observatory on the roof of Van Allen hall in Iowa City on Friday, August 29, 2014. The observatory houses three telescopes, including one for viewing the sun, solar flares and other solar phenomena. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa dedicated a revamped observatory with three high-powered telescopes to famed space scientist and longtime UI professor James Van Allen on Friday afternoon.

The 18-foot clamshell dome observatory is mounted high above most of Iowa City’s skyline on the roof of the seven-story Van Allen Hall on campus. The building houses the UI physics and astronomy department that Van Allen helped build.

“This combines the technology he loved, and the ability for students to walk one-flight up from the laboratory to use it,” said Robert Mutel, a UI physics astronomy professor involved in launching the new observatory.

Van Allen, who died in 2006 at age 91, was a space pioneer who discovered radiation belts that now bear his name.

The old observatory had fallen in disrepair and held outdated technology. It hadn’t been used in about 15 years, Mutel said. Students view to the heavens came from remote access to a telescope called Rigel based in Arizona.

With a grant from the Carver Charitable Trust, the department set about returning student’s access to space research back to arms reach. The new fiberglass structure observatory electronically opens to the sky and at the center three telescopes — a solar, planetary and astronomical — are fastened together.

The project cost approximately $140,000, including $36,000 for the primary astronomical telescope that’s powerful enough to find quasars billions of light years away.

The observatory will primarily be used by students, but the hope is to provide public access as well, such as for astronomy clubs.

“It’s pretty awe-inspiring,” said Erin Maier, a sophomore astronomy and physics student, who helped set up the new observatory and telescopes. “We are looking at entire galaxies just like ours in a single image.”

She said she was able to see the Bode’s galaxy 9 million light years away.

Cornelia Lang, a UI physics and astronomy professor charged with working the observatory into the curriculum, said about half of the 500 students in this year’s introduction to astronomy class will get to use the telescopes this fall.

“The goal is to use this for research and the classroom,” she said.

Students can use the tools to observe for class assignments or research projects, she said.

“This is to hook the nonscience students with the magic of technology and science,” Mutel said.