Telescopes used to study the cosmos often occupy massive structures perched atop mountains, such as Palomar Observatory in Southern California. It goes without saying that they are stuck in one place.
But now scientists have a powerful portable version that helps researchers move their telescopes when needed, and it was designed at Cal Poly.
A team of Cal Poly architecture students, under the guidance of an astronomy research scholar in residence, Russ Genet, have constructed a 15-foot-tall telescope that weighs approximately 500 pounds and has a 60-inch diameter mirror.
“We think it’s the world’s largest portable telescope,” Genet said. “We’d like to confirm that with the Guinness Book of World Records.”
The innovative design with high-grade ApplePly plywood and aluminum panels was planned and then built over the course of a year by Cal Poly architectural engineering students Laura Rice, Mounir El-Koussa and Mike Vickery.
Telescopes of similar size often weigh tons and are bolted into one location; theoretically they can be transported, but the task is extremely costly.
But Cal Poly’s instrument can be broken down in a matter of minutes with a group effort and then carefully loaded onto a truck.
The mirror is designed to reflect light from stars onto a specialized camera that records 600 images per second. Those images then are transported to a computer for analysis.
The computerized aspects of the device are being worked out this summer by mechanical engineering major Tim Scott and electrical engineering major Lluvia Rodriguez. Those include the control system that gathers data on stars and the photometer that captures images.
According to Genet, more than a million stars are under observation by researchers.
The new telescope will enable Genet and his students to take on pioneering research, including gathering information on the diameters of single stars by examining photons and the distances between two stars that can appear as one in the sky — referred to as a “double star.”
“Our telescope will be teamed with another somewhat smaller portable telescope by setting them apart,” Genet said. “The spacing between the two telescopes will be changed to develop a ‘correlation curve’ that will provide the key information on stellar diameters or double star separations.”
El-Koussa, now a recent graduate, said that he took on the task as his senior project and it helped him land a job.
“I took documentation of the design and analysis of the telescope to every interview I had, and I'm certain it was instrumental in me landing numerous interviews and job offers,” said El-Koussa, a project engineer with Ashley & Vance Engineering in San Luis Obispo. “The telescope gave me a better understanding of the theoretical structural engineering concepts we learn in school, and it allowed me to apply those theories to a non-conventional structure.”
In addition, the telescope won first place in the annual Art of ApplePly contest, which is typically awarded for furniture designs.