NU's Behlen Observatory - A Star Gazer's Paradise
From NEBRASKA ALUMNUS March 1973
Two years ago, when the University of Nebraska first attained a number one rating on the football field, University administrators used the occasion to propose a similar rating for academic fields. Last fall, while the football team was slipping to number two in the Big Eight Conference, at least one academic area was reaching that number one status. And it's not an area one would expect Nebraska to excel in ... astronomy.
The quick and consistent rise of the astronomy program began early in 1970 with the aid of two unexpected bonuses. First, the physics department, under which astronomy is classified, was able to lure Dr. Kam-Ching Leung away from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, where he was affiliated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to take charge of the NU program. Second, over $200,000 was received from Waiter Behlen and the Behlen family of Columbus, Nebraska.
Prior to these major developments, astronomy education was practically nonexistent at NU. There was only one astronomy course--taught on an irregular basis by professors whose major areas of study were elsewhere in physics.
In 1969, the department obtained a National Science Foundation Department Development Grant to help in enlarging the staff and in updating scientific equipment. However, the astronomy program gained only three staff positions from the grant-with no money for astronomy equipment.
Aware that the program lacked necessary funding, Dr. Leung, nevertheless, accepted the Nebraska position because he relished "the challenge of building a good astronomy program where none had previously existed." Several months before his final appointment, he gave a colloquium on astronomy in Lincoln. The subsequent interest and talk of monetary support from a member of his audience-Waiter Behlen-also encouraged him.
When the Hong Kong native arrived at NU in the spring of 1970, he immediately began to develop an astronomy course curriculum and to work on an idea for an observatory. There was talk of obtaining a telescope for the proposed observatory, but no one seemed to know where the money would come from.
After discussions with Dr. Leung and Dr. Henry Valk, then chairman of the NU physics department, Mr. Behlen became so interested in the project that he promised a $45,000 donation. One hundred-sixty thousand dollars remained from the building fund of the Behlen Laboratory (completed on the Lincoln campus in the mid-i 960's with Behlen family funds), and at the urging of Dr. Melvin George, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the University finally agreed to apply that money toward the observatory project, also. Staff members then began planning for the purchase of a 24-inch telescope.
Ultimately, unexpected savings resulted in the purchase of a 30-inch telescope. First of all, an unused building at the University's agricultural laboratory in Mead, Nebraska, was designated for observatory use -- so the money, which otherwise would have been spent on a new building, was spared. At the same time, the University of Washington in Seattle was planning on purchasing a similar telescope--and since NU and Washington chose the same manufacturer (Boiler & Chivens)--they were granted considerable savings.
Mead was chosen as the observatory site for several reasons in addition to the monetary aspect. According to Dr. Leung, the observatory had to be near the campus-"a maximum of a three hour drive"-but it could not be on the campus.
"Since we were building a sizeable telescope," he explains, 'we didn't want to put it inside a city because the light pollution (street lights, etc.) would make it fairly inefficient. Normally, when you build an observatory, you want to find a site which has a fairly good sky that is, many hours of clear evening sky and a fairly steady atmosphere."
As the scientists studied the weather patterns outside the cities in Eastern Nebraska--the location they were necessaril~ limited to-they discovered "very little difference between one area and the next, " according to Dr. Leung.
So Mead became an obviously good choice. It was a rural area (relatively little light pollution), and it was equidistant from the NU Lincoln and Omaha campuses (about a 45 minute drive from each). In addition, a large section of land with many buildings--the remains of a World War II bomb factory-already belonged to the University.
"Many of the buildings are still not being used," Dr. Leung notes. "All we had to do was remodel an existing building which was perfect for an observatory site. There was already a road leading to the building, and water and sewage facilities were there. Also, there was patrol by the field laboratory's night watchman. Normally, we wouldn't have anyone out there at night unless someone was working."
The building was originally a change house where people employed in the bomb factory changed in and out of work clothes. The structure has two floors, and since the ground floor doubled as bomb shelter, it is an extremely sound facility.
"The walls and the ceiling of the first floor are one foot high density reinforced concrete." Dr. Leung explains. "So that's why it is so good for an observatory -- it has a very good foundation for our equipment. And it is a huge building--40 x 112 feet. Right now we are using only the upper floor."
The remodeled facility -- appropriately named Behlen Observatory -- has office space, sleeping quarters, a spectograph room and a display room for public viewing. The modifications cost around $50,000; whereas, according to Dr. Leung, a duplicate building would cost approximately $150,000 to construct.
A silo-shaped telescope housing was built "from scratch" and attached to the change house to complete the observatory facilities. The total cost of the project, including the telescope, was $300,000-$205,000 from the Behlen family and the remainder from grants, donations and allocations ($23,000 from UN-L; $7,500 from UNO). The astronomy program is the first example of actual cooperation between the Lincoln and Omaha campuses.
Students on the Lincoln campus have previously had access to six-inch, 10-inch and 12-inch telescopes on the roof of Ferguson Hall. But these are inadequate for anything beyond introductory astronomy courses.
The new 30-inch model features a Cassegrain optical system with an interchangeable spectograph, used for measuring the spectrum of stellar or galactic objects, and camera. Consequently, Nebraska has the best observing facilities in Mid-America. No larger telescopes exist outside of Texas in the South, Arizona and California in the West, and Minnesota and Wisconsin in the North and East.
Additional pieces of equipment under construction at the Behlen Observatory include a spectrum scanner used for measuring the energy distributions of celestial objects and a two-channel photoelectric photometer which allows the observer to view two objects through the telescope simultaneously.
Construction of the observatory and development of an astronomy curriculum created interest within the physics department and, eventually, throughout the entire campus.
"Now the program is fairly well known among incoming freshmen as well as older students," Dr. Leung notes. "This is the third year for our new astronomy courses, and each spring the enrollment has doubled. So I think we are on fairly solid grounding now as far as the undergraduate courses are concerned."
Approximately 200 students now enroll each semester in an introductory astronomy course. In addition, ten undergraduate science majors are taking advanced astronomy courses. Technically, however, they are physics students, since the University does not yet grant degrees in astronomy. The students may instead earn a B.S. in physics with an astronomy option. This involves taking all the regular physics courses plus at least 12 hours of astronomy. As a result, the program is heavier than the regular one in physics; but faculty members agree that the additional training is a necessity.
Graduate students wishing to write their theses in astronomy must enroll in all the regular graduate physics courses, with class work for optional courses done in astronomy. They may then write a thesis on some aspect of astronomy, under the guidance of a staff astronomer.Three students are currently enrolled in the graduate astronomy program.
Students are making increasing use of the new facility at Mead. Elementary astronomy students visit the observatory only a few times because of the difficulties encountered in arranging car pools at convenient times. They still have ready access to the aforementioned telescopes atop Ferguson Hall. Seniors, however, are given more opportunities to use the Behlen facilities. Faculty members also spend several nights per week there.
According to Dr. Leung, "it (observation) depends on seasons. There are good months and bad months. In good months, you can expect useful skies. That means that you can use several types of equipment, and you can observe maybe one out of two evenings. In cool (bad) months, you might use the observatory only one out of every three or four evenings."
The general public is also being given the opportunity to tour and use the Behlen Observatory facilities. As Dr. Leung expresses it: "We were fortunate enough to have Mr. Behlen give so generously to our observatory, and we feel that not only would he like to see the observatory built as an educational research facility for the University, but also to see it benefit the state of Nebraska in general. So we assign one evening every month open to the public."
Formal dedication of the facility will take place on April 7, 1973. Several prominent astronomers are expected to attend the ceremony which will be preceded by two days of astronomy meetings.
The funding situation for astronomy programs in recent years has been "pretty grim", according to Dr. Leung, and NU was extremely fortunate in obtaining private support.
"Funds for most of the major, older observatories have been donated by someone, and the observatories are named after the donor," he acknowledges. "Astronomy has been almost solely supported by private funds instead of public funds."
The space program has been one of the more successful federal programs, and this has, more or less, generated some public support for astronomy. But due to recent cutbacks in the federal program, Dr. Leung looks once more to private donations as the major source of astronomy funding. Now that NU has the facilities, he is hoping for an endowment fund in the University Foundation that would take care of research and teaching problems.
"We have a very, very good foundation to build on, and it would be nice to have funding for continuations and research. The doubling of our enrollment (twice) and the public interest generated in our program have given us frank encouragement. Hopefully, we will be one of the country's centers of astronomy in a few years' time."