MPH student astronomer builds own telescope
Manlius Pebble Hill junor Joe Sopchak is determined to learn as much as he can about astronomy.
After taking a course with teacher Robert Ostrander, Sopchak proposed doing an independent study – with Ostrander as his mentor – that would combine his passion for this natural science with his interest in crafting instruments. He is currently constructing his own 10-inch reflector telescope to observe objects in space. Sopchak will then create a detailed catalog to include each celestial object’s official name, its coordinates at the time of observation, the location from which it was observed, a sketch of the object, notes on its shape, classification for galaxies and unique features.
Eagle Bulletin Editor Tami S. Zimmerman caught up with Sopchak to discuss his love for the night sky, why he chose to take on a massive undertaking in his third year of high school and what it’s involved so far. Here’s what he had to say:
When and why did you become interested in astronomy?
I’ve been a fan of astronomy since I was very little. My aunt, Joan Pallix, was a leading scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. and whenever she came to visit, she would always bring cool things from work. She would teach me all sorts of things, and initially, I was just interested in close-to-Earth subjects (Earth’s orbit, the space shuttle program, the moon and Mars). However, that soon grew to an interest in everything astronomical.
What appeals to you most?
This is hard to pin down. Part of it is the true sense of infinity that you feel when you ponder the distances involved with astronomy, or the processes involved with planetary and stellar motion. Although, perhaps my favorite part is the symbiosis of beauty and chaos. When looking at a nebula, I think it’s fascinating that something so beautiful is the product of the potentially explosive death of a star. Space is such a hostile place and yet still finds a way to be beautiful.
What did you study while in Dr. Ostrander’s one-semester class?
We spent the beginning of the course learning about the history of astronomy, including famous astronomers, basic concepts, etc. As we moved toward the end of the year, we moved into more of the observational/physical aspects of the study (the different spheres of the sun, types of galaxies and so on).
At one point, Dr. Ostrander had us read an article about a guy who made his own telescope, and the various techniques he used. Dr. O also told us that this is more common of a practice than you might imagine and that it’s far less advanced of a process than you might imagine. Once the course was over, I wanted to continue the study. It was actually Dr. O who suggested the possibility of making the reflector telescope and I thought it sounded like a good idea.
I had to get a 10-inch plate of Pyrex glass, a surface that which I will grind into a spherical shape. I then have to refine that surface using a sequence of finer and finer grit sizes, which will then make the surface smoother. I then polish the surface and reshape it so that it’s parabolic in shape. [Next], I send the mirror to professionals who will coat the mirror with reflective aluminum, which will make it a full-fledged telescope mirror. I [will] then mount it in the tube, which is the part that most people think of when they think of a telescope and voila! I have a telescope. (A more detailed process can be found at stellafane.org, which Sopchak said he’s been using to help him through the process.)
What sacrifices – personal and school-related – have you been making along the way?
The major sacrifice has been time. I’ve already invested countless hours on this (countless because I haven’t bothered to count them) and still have many, many more to go. To date, I haven’t really had anything more than that, however in the near future I’m expecting to have to spend a few days where I wake up, work on the mirror/scope all day and go to bed. I’ve left myself a rather open academic schedule in school so that I can finish any homework in study halls and leave more time open to work on the mirror at home.
What has been your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge to date has been mustering the confidence to move forward with various courses of action, courses where results could be either desirable or disastrous … Throughout the project, I’ve essentially been working blind. I’ve had the site, stellafane.org, to help me, but whenever an issue [arises] that [isn’t] addressed on the site, [I have] to formulate my own solutions. That has easily been the biggest challenge …
What have you learned so far?
I’ve learned a ton about the process, but I’ve also developed a stronger confidence in my problem-solving skills, which have been tested to their fullest extent on this project.