Building the Nieves Observatory

By Wee Jerrick | Last Update: June 2020

Launch of the Nieves Observatory at Soka University of America, late 2019

During the summer of 2019, I was part of an interesting effort to build the Nieves Observatory, a new research-grade observatory at Soka University of America, California. The Observatory is the brainchild of Bryan Penprase and was funded by the generous Nieves family. My primary contribution is setting up the data redux pipeline for and tutorial for use of the observatory.

The Observatory

The observatory houses a remotely operable and robotic research-grade telescope, allowing people from all around the world with access to the internet to operate the telescope. This observatory is part of a larger project to come, where we would want to link up all other remotely operable telescopes around the world—such as the Great Basin Observatory 0.7m and the Las Campanas Remote Observatory 0.3m, two telescopes that I’ve operated and shared their uses with the Astronomy Club at Yale–NUS (I have a deck)—to conduct research in astrophysics for undergraduates. The immediate goal of the observatory is to simply get students from all over the world to use the telescope for astrophotography and research. Students from Yale–NUS are well-positioned (literally) to operate the telescope, since, with a 15-hour difference between California and Singapore, night time in California would be day time in Singapore.

Building the Observatory

The planning and building are largely done by the guys at Observatory Systems, led by the extremely resourceful and knowledgeable Paul Gardner. The building of the observatory is largely assembling prefabricated parts and fitting telescopes that you can buy off-the-shelf.

The whole Observatory was actually assembled completely in just one day at the start of June, from just a concrete slab of nothing to a fully working dome.

Interior & Specs

The telescope of the observatory is a 0.3m CDK optical telescope that covers 70mm field of view. The telescope is equipped with a research-grade astronomical camera, an FLI camera that has a 10-position filter wheel. The camera has both broad and narrowband filters, using the Sloan griz filters and having H-alpha, OIII, SII filters.

Although the observatory is only 4x4m, the interior of the Observatory is surprisingly spacious and can fit many students in there. You will have to go in via a refrigerator door though.

Research Capabilities

Of course, I’m no construction or engineering guy so my contribution to the hardware is pretty limited. My real contribution to the observatory is through setting up a tutorial on how to use the telescope remotely and writing a curriculum for the data obtained by the telescope. Now that the observatory and telescope as assembled, I am going into phase two to this project, which is to create a Python-based pipeline for the images taken with the telescope. It is going to be adapted from something that I already have on my personal website at https://astro.weejerrick.com/, but customised for the Nieves Observatory.

The tutorial for using the Nieves Observatory is completed (you can see them here), and I’m now in the midst of creating a pipeline for reducing data of transient astronomical phenomenon for astrophysical research.