Peter van de Kamp Observatory Takes First Steps

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The dome of the new telescope peeks over the roof of the Science Center. Photo by Tasha Lewis

After a look at Swarthmore’s Science Center, even the most oblivious Swattie is bound to notice that something is different: there a large dome is now prominent on the Science Center roof. This dome is the shell that will house the new Peter van de Kamp Observatory, which the College is in the process of installing this semester.

At present, the dome is empty save for a platform, a ladder, and a cement column awaiting the arrival of a new, high-tech telescope to be added in October.

“The official purpose of the telescope is to allow students and faculty to work on projects together,” says astronomy professor David Cohen. It gives students, especially those in upper-level astronomy classes, a hands-on component to their research, which has always been common in other science departments. He and Professor Eric Jenkins explained that the telescope will be valuable to Swarthmore students by familiarizing them with the kinds of high-tech equipment they will use in graduate school and beyond.

The new telescope will be notably different from the other telescopes on campus. “Telescopes are like buckets that catch photons,” explains Jenkins. This telescope’s 24’’ diameter will absorb far more light than the 8’’ telescopes on the roof, enabling the observer to see dimmer and more distant objects, such as far-away galaxies. By contrast, the telescope at the Sproul Center — though also 24’’ — is about 100 years old and still adjusted by hand. The new telescope will adjusted by a computer.

Like the older Sproul center, the Peter van de Kamp observatory will be used for public outreach projects, and there will be nights when it is open to the community. Currently, the Sproul Center is open every second Tuesday of the month, and during special astronomical events.

The new telescope is named after Peter van de Kamp, who according to Jenkins was a “well-loved Swarthmore astronomy professor,” as well as the director of the Sproul observatory, the director of the school orchestra, and a talented astronomer who made several contributions to his field.

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