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   Date: 12/9/10 Bookmark and Share

A Sharper, Stabler View Beyond Earth

James Lowenthal, associate professor of astronomy, gets to know the Meade RCX400, a telescope donated by Aimee Girard ’10 and her father, Don Girard (pictured).

Thanks to a new arrival at the McConnell Observatory, donated by Aimee Girard ’10 and her father, clearer, sharper views of deep space are now available to eyes at Smith.

A new Meade RCX400, a 10-inch telescope powerful enough to view tiny craters, valleys and hills on the moon, far away nebulae and galaxies millions of light years distant, arrived last month to join 12- and 16-inch telescopes already in the astronomy department arsenal.

Aimee Girard ’10, on the roof of McConnell Hall, enjoys the Meade telescope she donated to Smith.

The telescope had been given to Girard by her uncle, Henry Girard, when she was enrolled in Astronomy 100 at Smith. When it sat virtually unused for the past couple years, she and her father, Don Girard, decided to donate the powerful machine to Smith’s astronomy department.

It was a fortuitous circumstance, explains James Lowenthal, associate professor of astronomy. His department attempted to purchase the same telescope two years ago but the model was no longer available.

Like the department's other telescopes, the new Meade is under full computer control, says Lowenthal. “These telescopes can point in seconds to any of thousands of targets with the push of a button,” he says.

Unlike its counterparts, however, the new telescope is equipped with a carbon-fiber tube, which experiences minimal expansion and contraction with temperature changes, resulting in more stable images, Lowenthal says. Also, the machine’s advanced optical design delivers sharp images over a wider field of view.

“The sky’s the limit with this telescope,” he puns. “We’ll easily be able to see cloud belts, spots and moon shadows on Jupiter, gaps in the rings of Saturn and features on the surface of Mars.”

The new telescope will be used for classes, student research, astronomy department open houses and field trips, says Lowenthal. It may find a permanent home at the college’s MacLeish Field Station in Whately, a rural research outpost removed from city light pollution, which offers dark night skies and better views of distant, faint objects in deep space.

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