Massive Telescope Enables Students to Map the Skies Above Los Angeles City College
By Jessica Brecker
The iconic dome of the Griffith Observatory looms high on a hill overlooking Los Angeles City College. Inside is one of the largest public solar telescopes in the world. In its shadow, on a viewing deck perched on top of the Science and Technology Building at LACC, is a similar, though smaller, dome.
LACC has eight telescopes that are impressive in size, and one massive reflective telescope with a 28-inch wide mirror.
“This is the biggest telescope in the district,” said physics professor Dean Arvidson. “I don’t think Cal State LA has one. I mean, it’s big enough that you can do research with it, you can see details.”
The department has a name for its pride and joy.
“We just call it The Webster,” said astronomy professor Paul McCudden.
The Webster was the result of funds from the Walter O’Connell Endowment. Walter O’Connell died in 2006, but LACC remembers the beloved physics professor with a memorial lecture every semester. The last one was in May 2013.
During the Memorial lectures Physics professors from Cal Tech give enlightening discussions reminiscent of O’Connell’s series of lectures, Innovation in Science. O’Connell’s legendary lectures started in 1958, and took place every Friday at noon in N Hall. Topics included Concerning Ashby’s Design for a Brain, which explored the “similar behavior between living organisms and computing machines,” according to the September 1958 issue of Collegian.
The school received $341,000 from the Walter O’Connell Endowment in 2005, to fund scholarships, awards, and distinguished speakers, according to the May 2005 issue of Collegian. The telescope was a welcome bonus.
Because the machine cost thousands of dollars, students were advised to use care.
“Please do not touch it at all,” McCudden said of the precious mirror. “If you touch the mirror I’m throwing you over the edge.”
The meaning of McCudden’s only partially tongue-in-cheek statement does not go unnoticed. Nobody touched the mirror.
McCudden’s class meets every Monday evening for astronomy lab.
As the sky began to darken last Monday, McCudden told his class that The Webster tracks the stars too, a necessity since stars and planets are always moving.
Many students were huddled around the tables nearby, mapping out the stars and measuring the Pleiades. They did this to the red light of small desk lamps.
“It’s red, so when we look up at the stars, it’s not as disturbing as white light would be,” said student Marcy Mejla. “Our city has so many lights that it’s difficult to see how many stars are out.”
This phenomenon is known as “light pollution,” and to escape it, one has to travel out of the city and to the desert. McCudden and Arvidson host star parties for students who want to experience this, and according to both professors, The Webster comes apart and fits into McCudden’s Rav 4. When it arrives at its destination it is simply reassembled and is good to go.
On Monday night the telescope was in its home inside the LACC observatory dome. Students climbed up a special set of stairs and used the supplied rail to lean on as they looked through the eyepiece, careful not to touch the telescope itself.
The Andromeda Nebula was viewed through The Webster. The Nebula is about three million light years away, and appeared as just a bit of fuzziness.
At a recent star party in Bryce Canyon, The Webster revealed more.
“We went with the Astronomy Club in May 2012,” Arvidson said. “There was an annular eclipse. The moon was a little farther from the earth, so it was smaller in the sky. It passed directly in front of the sun, but it was a little smaller than the sun, so you can see a little ring of sunlight, it was the most amazing thing.”
One of Arvidson’s students had an iPod with him and played the Johnny Cash song Ring of Fire as they viewed the spectacle.
But there was plenty to see from the roof of the Science and Technology Building, even unaided by telescopes. A satellite was plainly visible to the naked eye as it cruised through the sky. McCudden used a laser pointer to help show students various constellations. To the north, towards Griffith Observatory, Polaris, or the North Star, was visible. McCudden also pointed out Pegasus, which appeared as a big square to the South East, a star marking each corner. To the west was Cygnus, which McCudden described as “the swan swimming through the Milky Way.”
On Dec. 5, at 5 p.m., Venus will be visible and will be next to the moon. To students looking up from campus, this will appear to be an extremely bright star. Monday, students peering through the smaller telescopes were able to see Venus as a crescent-shaped planet, much like the earth’s moon in miniature.
“In a few days look for comet ISON,” Arvidson said. “Right now it’s passing right behind the sun and it’s passing very close to the sun, the sun may melt it and burn it up, then it just disappears. But if it survives, it will come back around the sun and we will have a good view of it starting next week, on Monday. It could be, people are saying, it might be the comet of the century, a super bright comet.”
On Friday, December 13, at 5 a.m. students are invited to come up to the third floor of the Science and Technology Building to view the comet, providing it doesn’t burn up. Saturn will also be visible at that time.
“I hope part of the goal is to have students say, ‘this is my universe, I am a part of that,’” Arvidson said.
The Astronomy Club will be making telescopes next semester, and the kits have already been ordered. Student will be allowed to keep the telescope they make.
For more information of the astronomy club email club president, Soma Ali at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The club also has a facebook page at: