The Westmont Observatories
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Famous comets, thousands of people, and local television crews are just a few aspects that make up the history of Westmont’s two observatories. Dr. Kenneth Kihlstrom, a Westmont professor who specializes in low-temperature superconductivity, is the recipient of the Westmont Faculty Research Award and has also won the Teacher of the Year Award in Natural and Behavioral Sciences two times. In a recent interview with The Horizon, Dr. Kilstrom talked about the history of the Westmont observatories and what makes them unique.
“This is our second observatory,” he said. “The old one is down towards duck pond. It’s from the mid-50’s. Someone had donated a 16-inch telescope to Westmont under the condition that we built an observatory for it.
“Around 2007, we got a grant to get a new telescope (the Keck telescope). It is a 24-inch telescope that was all computer controlled. So we built the new observatory for that telescope. An eight inch refracting telescope is mounted on it. I almost always use the refractor for open viewings because it gives sharper images. The new one has a CCD camera that we can put on it. Students can also do research on it.”
Dr. Kihlstrom went on to talk about how they got such a clear and colorful picture of the Andromeda Galaxy using the Westmont Keck telescope. “A whole series of pictures were taken through different colored filters. When they are combined, it gives you full color. It is actually made up of seven pictures across and five pictures down.”
Halley’s Comet is one of the most famous. Discovered in 1696 by astronomer Edmond Halley, it only returns to Earth’s vicinity every 75 years. Because of this, it is possible for some humans to actually see it twice in their lifetime.
In 1986, Dr. Kihlstrom brought his young children to see the comet.
“When Halley’s Comet came through in 1986,” said Dr. Kihlstrom, “there were 1500-2000 people over ten days. The first couple viewings were at four in the morning and about 20 people showed up. The next day about 400 people showed up. Even the local television station came out. ”
Kihlstrom hopes his children will see it again when it comes around in 2061.
“The Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit helps with open public viewings. During these open viewings, four or five telescopes are set up on the deck in addition to the big telescope.”
Dr. Tom Whittemore, a Westmont professor who specializes in astronomy, mirror-making, and telescope construction, is there for most of the viewings.
“[Dr. Whittemore] is primarily in charge of running the open viewings,” Dr. Kilstrom says. “But, I am also there for many of them. We have been having open viewings for over thirty years in both the old and the new observatories.”
If students and others are interested in going to an open viewing, they are held on the third Friday of every month at 7:30p.m.