February 25, 2020

Exploring the Largest Telescope in Florida

An amazing scope! (all photos by author)

Florida isn’t known for ideal dark skies and astronomy. Humid bug-filled nights, coupled with hazy washed out skies make for less than optimal viewing conditions to say the least. The state does at least host warm temps, making the wintertime an ideal season for astronomy.

Along with a host of intrepid amateur astronomers, Florida does have a scattering of professional observatories, mostly run by universities. We recently had a chance to explore the largest observatory in the state: the new 1-meter telescope at the Embry-Riddle Campus in Daytona Beach, Florida.

It’s true, saying you’re the ‘biggest ‘scope in Florida’ is kinda like claiming you’re the tallest ‘mountain’ in the state — the bar for qualification is set pretty low. Still , the 1-meter scope is pretty impressive. A state of the art Ritchey-Chrétien telescope from DFM optical, the five story College of Arts and Sciences building that houses the telescope was built specifically with the dome-shaped rooftop observatory in mind. That’s right; the pier that supports the telescope is not only separate from the building a foundation itself to isolate out vibration, but it extends right into the ground below.

Installed in July 2014, the telescope is available for astronomy students to use for research. The telescope and the observatory is also part of the SARA (Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy) network of worldwide research observatories.

The facility also conducts public outreach and has free observing nights, starting up again this February. The building itself is just five degrees off true north — look closely at the pier on the fourth floor just below the telescope and you can see the inadvertent offset — and the ‘scope has achieved an enviable pointing accuracy of under five arc seconds. Telescope and observatory engineer Damon Burke has designed a complete control room offering viewing from the adjacent room next to the classroom in the floor below. The university also hosts numerous smaller scopes and a series of half and dozen piers right outside the classroom for use on clear nights.

Though Florida isn’t known for clear skies, Burke notes that the Atlantic side of the Florida coast along Daytona Beach hosts waves of dry desert air lofted across the Atlantic pre- hurricane season, contributing to clear skies. In addition, Daytona Beach is just an hour north of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, two other well known destinations for space enthusiasts.

The College of Arts and Sciences Building housing the 1-metre scope.

I’d also place the 1-meter Embry-Riddle scope alongside of the Florida Keys (the site of the annual Winter Star Party), the Westgate Ranch dark sky site, and the Chiefland dark sky camping site north of Tampa Bay area as some of the top space destinations in Florida…

Well, that’s it for our very brief week-long journey back to the Atlantic side of the state. We’re back in the Tampa Bay area now, hanging out at our most unique Air B&B stop yet: the Survival Outreach Sanctuary in Spring Hill, Florida. It’s ironic that this amazing place was here all along, just 10 miles down the road from where we lived in Hudson for seven years.

We’re also hatching out plans to jump out farther afield, beyond the state and hopefully soon internationally once again.

More to come!

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