Telescope Will Provide Close-up Views of the Moon, Planets, Stars and Galaxies

UML Observatory team Image by Edwin L. Aguirre

From left, Physics Assoc. Prof. Silas Laycock and Kennedy College of Sciences Dean Noureddine Melikechi go over the observatory plans with Facilities Senior Project Manager for Construction Thomas Weber.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Students will get a chance to embark on a visual tour of our solar system and beyond when a new astronomical observatory opens on South Campus this fall.

The facility, which is scheduled to be completed by mid-November, will feature a Celestron 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on a heavy-duty computerized mount. It will provide high-resolution views of the craters and lava plains on the moon, the satellites of Jupiter and its cloud belts and the rings of Saturn, as well as star clusters, galaxies and nebulae light-years away.

“This will help students interested in physics, as well as non-science majors and the public, in learning more about the secrets that the sky keeps in its vast stretch,” says Prof. Noureddine Melikechi, dean of the Kennedy College of Sciences.

The telescope will be housed in a 7-foot-high cylindrical building topped with a shiny metal dome manufactured by Ash-Dome, a leading supplier of domes used in professional and private observatories worldwide. The motorized dome measures 16½ feet in diameter and weighs about 3,200 pounds.

UML Observatory site Image by Edwin L. Aguirre

The photo shows the excavation site for the foundation of the Schueller Observatory, which is located on one corner of Riverview Field on South Campus along Pawtucket St., near the Lowell Humane Society animal shelter.

“Aside from being operated on-site, the telescope is also designed to be remotely controlled by students and faculty from anywhere on campus, including the opening, closing and rotation of the dome,” says Assoc. Prof. Silas Laycock of the Department of Physics and Applied Physics. “Plans call for the addition of a CCD camera to be attached to the telescope, so its images can be displayed on remote computer screens. This would, for example, allow students sitting in a classroom on North Campus to see what’s being viewed through the telescope.”

Physics majors and students taking introductory astronomy classes will be able to use the telescope to conduct observations, lab exercises and capstone projects, while graduate students can use it to do research in the areas of imaging, spectroscopy, photometry and astrometry, Laycock says.

“They can use the telescope to gain hands-on experience before they go out and work in professional observatories,” he says.

There are also plans to hold free public viewing on South Campus once a month. “The observatory can accommodate about a half dozen people at a time, and it is wheelchair-accessible,” notes Laycock, who leads the department’s astronomy outreach programs, including the Astronomy Roadshow for schoolchildren in Les Cayes, Haiti.

“We plan to invite schools, libraries and clubs in Lowell and neighboring communities to join our stargazing sessions. Physics students will be on hand to give talks and answer questions,” he says.

UML Observatory dome Image by Ash Manufacturing Company
The observatory’s 16½-foot-wide metal dome is nearing completion at the Ash-Dome manufacturing facility in Plainfield, Ill.
A Generous Gift

The facility will be named Schueller Observatory, in memory of Richard L. Schueller ’86, an avid amateur astronomer who used to observe with the Celestron telescope from his backyard observatory in Chelmsford.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics from the then-University of Lowell in 1986, Schueller went on to become a successful research scientist, consultant and inventor, with six U.S. patents to his credit and seven more currently in the approval process. Schueller succumbed to brain cancer in 2015. According to his obituary, he was a “dedicated member of the New Hampshire Astronomical Society, [and was] instrumental in the organization's Educational Outreach program, especially for the placement and support of hundreds of telescopes in public libraries throughout New England.”

Schueller’s widow, Susan, whom he first met at ULowell in 1983, donated the Celestron telescope and mount to the university. Construction of the observatory building is being funded by the Physics Department, the Kennedy College of Sciences and UMass Lowell.

“I thank the Schuellers for the generous donation and the university leadership for their support of this effort,” says Melikechi.