The 27.5-inch mirror telescope will operate atop the brand new science and engineering building and will be made available to all students from the area
The telescope will operate atop the brand new science and engineering building and will be made available to all students Credit: Santa Monica College

When a new building for the Engineering & Science Department at Santa Monica College (SMC) was conceived, the icing on the cake was very much a new, permanent observatory, on the rooftop complete with a 20.6-foot diameter dome and a 27.5-inch mirror telescope.

Well aware of the benefits of having such an observatory available to the students and faculty for research and educational programs, the Division of the State Architect in California placed the observatory out for public bid and Sea West Observatories was chosen as a contractor for providing consulting in addition to installing the dome, telescope and management system.

“This design is very popular in terms of the way and the ease in which you can attach cameras and other instruments,” said Matt Dieterich, Program Manager, Sea West Observatories. “It has a lot of flexibility and you can actually put instrumentation on both sides of the telescope, you can rotate it plus you can direct the light out at a right angle through different side ports enabling even more instruments to be connected.”

“There will also be smaller telescopes that are going to be set up outside of the main observatory on top of the roof. So the amount of equipment and access to the technology is something that’s super exciting for the students, for sure,” said Dieterich.

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“I don’t know how much it’s been advertised yet around campus, but it’s going to be a pretty renowned facility by the time it’s done, especially for this size of college,” Dieterich said.

Students and faculty will have the capability to log in to the telescope over the internet to remotely collect data and to host group stargazing sessions. The software will integrate with the telescope, cameras and weather station to ensure optimal data collection is occurring under safe weather conditions. If a weather-related event occurs such as high-winds, or if rain is forecast, then the observatory’s emergency shutdown procedure is activated to park the telescope and close the dome.

At the heart of the observatory is a PlaneWave CDK700 telescope that will be utilized for student and professor-led research and educational programs. In addition to the main observatory, smaller optical devices will be used for visual observing, including specially designed telescopes for safe viewing of the Sun.

While the telescope is not planned to be operational until the winter of 2025, there is a lot of excitement within the circles of those involved.

“Astronomy and the study of the stars is one of the most fundamental science topics known to man,” laughs Jim Mahon, Planetarium Director at SMC. “As a species, we’ve relied on the stars to help understand when to plant crops, when to harvest, how to navigate, almost everything key in our survival.

Extraordinary detail on the International Space Station, in orbit 254 miles above the Earth’s surface, will be visible using the telescope
Credit: NASA

“What we will have is an extremely capable, modern research-level instrument. It’s also been designed in such a way so that anyone can access it, even people in wheelchairs. Everyone should be able to experience, enjoy and learn using this telescope. And that includes students from other local schools too, it won’t just be limited to college undergrads.”

Dieterich explains that because the observatory was added during construction of the new Engineering & Science Department building, it made the whole process considerably easier, safer and more cost effective, not to mention structurally sound.

“It’s a million dollar facility for sure, when you factor all the equipment in, but the thing is, when it’s done right, during the general construction phase, the observatory itself becomes a very small budgetary item and it costs a lot less than say if it was added later in a retrofit or something.”

He says that with the vast array of potential instruments that can be added to this kind of setup, students will be able to track the International Space Station, study Sun spots or even, using specialist spectrometry equipment, analyze atmospheres on distant exoplanets.

“It’s a little bit like Lego,” Mahon says, adding,”The equipment is designed to be compatible with just about every make and type of instrument that’s out there.”

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.