TRAVERSE CITY -- Jerry Dobek's wildest dream has come true.
The math and science instructor at Northwestern Michigan College is also curator of the college's Joseph Rogers Observatory.
Since 1981 he has used a Celestron C-14 telescope to teach students, conduct research and welcome the public to viewings. The unit, purchased in 1976 with money from the college's annual barbecue, had been housed in the observatory's dome since 1981.
When the phone rang this March offering a nearly-pristine 16-inch telescope, Dobek jumped at the opportunity to upgrade.
John Carlisle, a retiring engineer for General Motors, was relocating to Maine. The Detroit area resident's Meade 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain computer-controlled telescope was not going along. Carlisle had owned it for ten years and used it only twice, so he decided it was time to find a better home.
Mutual NASA contacts led him to call Dobek with the stunning offer.
"It's phenomenal, it's just a wonderful, wonderful instrument," Dobek said. "Here is basically a research instrument -- there is a noticeable difference in the optics, two inches more in diameter provides a noticeable difference."
"I saw a great opportunity at basically no cost to the college," he said.
While a portion of the telescope's cost is a donation from Carlisle, Dobek tapped Project ASTRO materials and equipment funds for the rest. Project ASTRO is a national project promoting the teaching of astronomy and physical science for which Dobek is the site coordinator. One of 14 participating sites at universities or observatories, the Rogers Observatory is the only one based at a community college.
Boosting the on-site equipment was not even on Dobek's radar. Carlisle's generosity leapfrogged the idea from fantasy to reality at warp speed.
"To start with, before this came around my dream was to have a smaller second dome out back to put in another telescope," said Dobek, referring to a smaller portable model owned by the college. "Then if the classroom were larger, we could have both classes and labs here."
The Meade telescope debuted during a July 11 public viewing after ACE Welding in Traverse City created a custom mount.
Since then, the idea for the second dome has been gaining steam. It could house the Celestron telescope and double the amount of viewing time for students and the public. Plus students could still master the theory of locating astronomical objects manually, as the old equipment is not computer controlled. Upstairs in the larger dome they would use the 21st century technology, where the touch of a button orients the telescope.
"It's the best of both worlds for them," Dobek said.
The NMC Astronomy Club is taking the fundraising lead for the second dome, hoping to net just under $15,000 to purchase the ten-foot-dome kit.
Formed last year on a wave of astronomy enthusiasm from Dobek's classes, the club has just a dozen students. But they think big, committing themselves to helping the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society host weekly public viewings all year in honor of 2009 being the International Year of Astronomy. The two clubs alternate weekly hosting duties and so far the Friday or Saturday evening viewings have averaged 100 attendees.
"We've had nights where we had cars all the way down the hill and down the road, people walking up the hill," said Scott Romain of Big Rapids, a member and NMC grad who commutes up for every club night. "Even on cloudy nights we have 30 people."
"It's not an average thing for a community college to have such a strong program," he said. "I think it's a huge asset to the community and that's kind of where the club came in: promoting that asset."
The next public view at the Rogers Observatory featuring the new Meade telescope will be from 9 to 11 p.m. on Friday. The observatory is located at 1753 Birmley Road. A schedule of viewings for the rest of the year is located at www.gtastro.org, select Viewing nights: 2009.