The service tower attached to the iconic floating egg atop the Institute’s Koffler accelerator (the “spaceship” in the photo, left) has recently been graced with a charming, shiny silver skullcap – an observatory dome. Formally known as the Martin Kraar Observatory, it houses two telescopes, and it figured in two of our recent press items. We spoke with observatory director Ilan Manulis of the Davidson Institute of Science Education:
WSW: Tell us about the telescopes.
IM: The larger one is a 41 cm. (16 in.) telescope. Due to special optical properties, it has the power of a much longer telescope. The second telescope is an 80 mm. guide telescope. Neither of these telescopes have eyepieces; they are connected to high-resolution CCD cameras; the images are transferred to a computer and from there to the internet.
WSW: Can you describe the idea behind the observatory?
IM: I first began working on the idea for the observatory two years ago. It is named for Martin Kraar, who headed the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science for many years, and who helped us get the funding we needed for this project. The idea was to build an astronomical observatory of a type unknown in Israel – a hybrid observatory. There are several educational telescopes here, and one professional observatory, which belongs to Tel Aviv University. We wanted an observatory that could be used for both purposes. To this end, we installed a robotic telescope (only the second such installation in Israel) that can be controlled remotely.
And it is being used for both purposes! We recently made a major contribution to scientific research, providing images of a new supernova as soon as it was discovered. On the other hand, on Wednesday evening, it will be showing images of the total lunar eclipse in real time over the Internet for anyone who wants to watch – not only in Israel, but across the globe as well.
WSW: Please tell us more about the educational activities of the observatory.
IM: Because telescopes work mainly at night and because our observatory can be operated remotely, we are preparing an “exchange” program with high school students in Los Angeles. They will control our telescopes during our night, and students in Israel will have access to telescopes on top of the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles when it is night there. Thus, students in both place will gain access to the observatories from their respective classrooms, without the need to travel!
Wednesday’s viewing of the total lunar eclipse will be a unique event that we hope will be seen all over the world. Anyone can log on and watch it online. In addition, the cameras will send the images directly to a screen that we will set up outdoors in the Clore Garden of Science, so that people can come to the Institute, hear talks about the eclipse from experts, and enjoy it from all angles. We will be using the guide telescope here as well as the big one, because only the smaller one can get the whole moon in its sights while the big telescope records parts of the moon.
WSW: What are your plans for the future?
IM: Of course we plan to continue to serve the needs of the astrophysics community here at the Weizmann Institute and in Israel, and we hope they will find new ways to make use of the telescopes. In addition, we are initiating a new program that will enable high-school students to use the telescopes to research their final matriculation projects in astrophysics. In addition, we started planning a special “Teach the Teachers” program, in which physics teachers from all over the country will perform hands-on astrophysics projects, which will in turn enable them to serve as mentors for their students later on.