We take a look back at Wallace Observatory’s near half-century of teaching and research, and look forward to the view from a new telescope upgrade.
BY ALLISON MACLACHLAN, SM ’11 | MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
Forty miles northwest of MIT in the woods of Westford, Massachusetts, and away from the worst of Boston-area light pollution, a barely marked turn leads down a narrow dirt road to a small white building. It’s unremarkable from the outside, save for the two domes that rise, like squat silos, almost to the height of the surrounding oak trees. But inside each dome is the means to see into the heart of the solar system and beyond. When the Wallace Astrophysical Observatory’s mechanical roofs are peeled back on clear evenings, MIT astronomers can train WAO’s telescopes into the depths the night sky.
The Wallace Observatory opened its doors 46 years ago this fall. A look back at its history—and through its logbook—reveals how the science of observing has evolved with technology. In 1971, Wallace’s computer controls made it cutting-edge; today the observatory’s equipment is relatively modest compared with the enormous telescopes trained on the skies in more modern facilities. But MIT’s observatory has grown with the times, making strides in teaching and research. As it approaches its half-century, Wallace has maintained a special place at MIT for far longer than its creators imagined.
The facility has the look of a perfect hideaway from which to observe planets and stars. The building’s compact single story houses a computer data room, a kitchenette, a machine room, and a workshop for fixing telescopes. A sign on the door of a tiny room containing bunk beds reads: “QUIET PLEASE, ASTRONOMER SLEEPING.” Celestial objects don’t move according to human schedules; when there’s an important astronomical event to observe, its timing dictates work hours. “If an event is scheduled to happen at three or five in the morning, it might be better to get out here and have a few hours’ sleep beforehand,” explains Timothy Brothers, WAO’s site manager.
Since it opened in 1971, the Wallace Observatory has concentrated on both research and teaching. “We depend a lot on student work and time to get our results, and simultaneously we’re teaching them how to do the research,” explains Michael Person ‘94, SM ‘01, PhD ‘06, the observatory’s director. “Jim Elliot was long a supporter of students involved in research,” Person says of the observatory’s revered previous director James Elliot ‘65, SM ‘65, who led the Wallace Observatory for more than 30 years before his death in 2011.
The idea of training the next generation of astronomers drove the initial proposal for an MIT observatory. Students had started to develop a keener interest in astronomy in the 1960s, as the Apollo program took off. After Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, ScD ‘63, walked on the moon in the summer of 1969, enrollment in MIT astronomy courses spiked to 425 in the 1969-‘70 school year, up from only 22 two years earlier. Students had to borrow time on other institutions’ telescopes, resulting in long waiting lists. MIT needed a facility of its own.
At the time, MIT astronomers were already known for their research in radio astronomy. Several faculty members had made key discoveries by studying invisible radiation. In 1955, physics professor Bernard Burke ‘50, PhD ‘53, was part of a team that found radio emissions from Jupiter; in 1962, his colleague Bruno Rossi co-discovered the first source of celestial x-rays. MIT president Howard W. Johnson saw “excellent potential” for the school to make similar strides in optical astronomy.
Once the idea of an astrophysical observatory gained support, the observatory itself needed a site. However, not just any land would do. It had to be near a major highway for easy access, far enough from city lights to provide a dark night sky for observing, and preferably far enough inland to avoid the characteristic Boston fog. After rejecting potential sites in Boston Harbor, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, an unoccupied hilltop was selected on an MIT-owned 1,300 acre rural property which was already home to the Millstone Radar and the 37-meter Haystack Radio Observatory. The location was a perfect balance of dark skies necessary for optical observations and proximity to campus such that students could be transported to and from the site on a given night. It took approximately two years to clear the forested site, construct the main building, and install the telescopes and the two respective domes.
George Rodney Wallace Jr. ‘13, a resident of neighboring Fitchburg, offered to foot much of the nearly $400,000 construction cost. A paper-company president who’d been educated in chemical engineering, Wallace also happened to love astronomy. He was 82 when the George R. Wallace Jr. Astrophysical Observatory was dedicated in the fall of 1971.
In Wallace’s almost five decades of operation, scientists trained there have achieved several firsts, including the discovery of mutual spin alignment among members of asteroid families and the first accurately predicted and observed occultation of Kuiper Belt object Quaoar.
The equipment at Wallace may be modest by today’s standards, but it is a remarkable improvement over what the facility started with. In 1971, computerized controls were considered revolutionary. Indeed, the computer controlling Wallace’s 24-inch telescope made it 10 times as efficient at precise tracking as manually guided telescopes. The planning committee wrote that thanks to this technology, the observatory would, “rank among the most modern facilities of its type anywhere in the world.”
Since then, the equipment has become much more sensitive and reliable. This fall, scientists at Wallace are replacing the 16-inch education telescope which has served in the secondary dome since the observatory’s construction. The new telescope, currently being installed with assistance from UROP students in the WAO summer program, will be a fully-computerized 24-inch Corrected Dall-Kirkham design, more than doubling the effective light gathering power of the previous instrument. The education dome’s retrofit is now complete, and telescope assembly has already begun with the “first light” images expected to be taken in the early fall.
Designed to be fully remote-capable, the new telescope will be able to be controlled from the MIT campus via a remote computer link, as well as turned over to autonomous computer control. However, Person assures, “A fully manual mode will remain, as teaching students how to operate telescopes and understand movements in the sky is one of our most important missions out here.”
The Wallace Observatory was originally intended to last just 50 years, but with that span up in just four short years, it shows no signs that its time will be up anytime soon. “We’ve got new equipment, more control systems, and we’re starting to get even more interest in classes,” Brothers says.
The plan, says Person, is to keep expanding and growing past the lifespan originally imagined. “We’re not starting any countdown to the end,” he says. As telescopes are refurbished, cameras are improved, and important findings keep coming, Wallace remains a leader in student astronomy research.
As Brothers puts it, “I think we have a hidden gem out here.”
This story has been adapted from the original.
Find it online: http://bit.ly/wao-history
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