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VBAS Facilities News

April 16, 2012. S21 Status and a farewell note ....

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Hello there!

Sorry for taking so long to update the status of the VBAS Facilities.  Combination of "life" duties got in the way and took me a while to find some time to write this.

As promised I will focus on the status of one facility at the time and we will start with the Swanson Observatory, also known as the S21 Facility.

History. The Swanson Observatory (S21) is the oldest building of the VBAS facilities and was inaugurated in 1957; it went through a very extensive renovation and restoration process in the past 15 years and has been re-opened to the public last October 2011, just in time to celebrate, this past march,  the 100th birthday of the man that was behind the establishment and many achievements of the Astronomical Society, Dr. Von Braun. It is dedicated to the Memory of Dr. Swanson, one of the founding members of the Astronomical Society, that was also  its first Observatory director and operated it for many years.

Description. The Swanson Observatory is composed by a 14 feet remotely controlled rotating wood dome with solar powered sliding doors made of two quarter ring sections of a Sky-Lab mock-up (Third Stage of the Saturn V) . Inside the dome is hosted a 21 inches Newtonian F4 telescope installed on a Modified Asymmetric German Equatorial mount (also known as Maggie-May like the song). The telescopes carries 3 video cameras for pointing and observations and will soon host a new16 bits/ 8.3 Megapixels (STF 8300) color imaging camera and a planetary camera that will double as star tracker. Below the dome is the control room that hosts the VBAS FTP Server and the equipment to remotely operate the dome, the telescope and the cameras and broadcast the images to the Planetarium dome. Outside the control room is a foyer that hosts a large screen video monitor showing live operations of the team in the control room; On the side of the foyer, near the steps, there is the only bathroom of the whole VBAS facilities complex (you may imagine what is our next big renovation project... )

Mission. After the renovation and with the addition of the new digital cameras, the S21 is back among the top astronomical instruments in the South-East of the United States. To give you some prospective, the two biggest telescopes in the South East are a 30 and a 35 inches telescopes both located close to Decatur GA (not far from Atlanta). The F4 configuration makes the S21 an extremely "fast" telescope" capable of capturing details with short expositions on a large field of view: this makes it well suited for observing deep sky objects and other faint structures. However the main mission of this telescope is not to produce great images but to  provide a "first hand" experience about how modern Astronomy exploration is conducted in state of the art facilities across the world. Astronomy is nowadays a multidisciplinary experience that involves knowledge in many fields ranging from Optics and Mechanics to Software and Electronics and everything in the middle, including Building code, Carpentry and almost any other skill known to humankind (and do not forget a lot a patience!). VBAS has a program to educate and certify operators for the use of the S21 that is open to all VBAS members that are 18 years old or older (and memberships is only $24/year, $36/years for a Family and $12 for Students!); the goal is training a new generation of observers and astronomers and VBAS is committed to involve  the North Alabama community in this opportunity.

Present and Future Activities. The S21 facility may make you feel like you never work twice on the same telescope! There is always some tweaking and improving going on but the overall goal is to streamline the operations and make the facility more accessible and comfortable.  The latest big project has been to replace the wood casing for the actuators of the dome sliding doors with metal casing. That has removed the bending and off axis push/pull that caused uneven operation and the doors to slide outside the rails. The upgrade was successful and operation of the doors has been reliable for the past few weeks. Next upgrade will consist into adding a new Ethernet connection from the Control Room up to the main camera on the scope to allow for imaging capturing and camera control. This will be an interesting task considering the already crowded conduit, or umbilical cord, connecting Maggie-May to the Telescope. Other ready to be started activities include the installation of a new laminate floor in the control room and the replacement of the AC window unit. Also, there is a plan to move the grinding machine, that was used for the mirror in the telescope, back under dome as part of a small museum area that will also include the original Von Braun telescope currently lent to the US Space and Rocket center for the Von Braun exposition.  Volunteers to take the lead on any of these activities are welcome!



A lot has been done and a lot has been planned; as a matter of fact, VBAS members have completed the definition of the long term planning for the facilities and have prioritized the next big projects. The document is available in the NEW VBAS Planning Documents (Click to follow the link) section of the website. Please feel free to comment and suggest improvements and do not forget to thank Jeff for the outstanding job of collecting and rationalize all the inputs.

With this note I come to the end of my tenure as Facility Director. It has been a fun and intense time in which I have appreciated the work of many of you and the support of the whole community. I hope I have been a good steward and left thing in good order; I will continue my contribution to this page and the VBAS activities but the new Facility Director will take care of  coordinating the next steps. For him and all of us that some time or another have been confronted with the question of :"Why do we spent so much money and effort tendering facilities like VBAS while more compelling problems are at our doorsteps" I would like to point to the response that Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, another of the VBAS founding members, gave to a similar question. The answer can be found at or clicking here.l



For the next few updates of this News I will keep this format and I will talk, one by one, of the facilities that we have, describing the current status and the next projects. This will allow many of you to familiarize again with the facilities and, I hope, find area of interest where you may want contribute.This is the planning for each of the subjects:

  1. Swanson S21(April 2012)
  2. Angele C16 (May 2012)
  3. Stulingher Solar Telescope (June 2012)
  4. Planetarium (August 2012)
  5. Library and General Fruition Facilities (September 2012)
  6. Long Term Planning (October 2012 - Astronomy Day)

I will keep the list of accomplishments up to date. Please, remember to take pictures of yourself and your contributions. I will be glad to post them in this section!

Hope it helps, a big THANK YOU  for all your work and happy holidays,: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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VBAS Completed, Current and Planned Projects

  1. Ang New roof and Solar Telescope  Sliding cover: COMPLETED! Thank You!
  2. Ang Observatory Door and platform fix: Richard, Jeff: COMPLETED! Thank You!
  3. S21 Declination gear: Wes, Jeff COMPLETED! Thank You!
  4. Ang Outside VBAS logo:Melissa & Lowell  COMPLETED! Thank You!
  5. Ang Access Ramp: Melissa, Richard COMPLETED! Thank You!
  6. Pln Laptop Cleanup: Melissa COMPLETED! Thank You!
  7. Pln Showcases Lights Covers install: Gena, Bob and Lowell Crooks,COMPLETED! Thank You!
  8. Pln Projector Mount on Pedestal:Roy, Wes, Jared, Jeff, Frank, Richard, Gena, Tom COMPLETED! Thank You!
  9. Web Site Transition: Michael , Jared COMPLETED! Thank You!
  10. S21 Image processor SW Registax Installed COMPLETED! Thank You!
  11. Pln Connection to live S21StreamingCOMPLETED! Thank You!
  12. Pln Old Projector ready for return: Wes Roy COMPLETED! Thank You!
  13. Out  Landscaping: Richard Gena Melissa COMPLETED! Thank You!
  14. Stu Mirrors Back: John & Daughter COMPLETED! Thank You!
  15. S21 Image Server: Lothar COMPLETED! Thank You
  16. Pln Projector pedestal wood cover: Frank COMPLETED! Thank You!
  17. S21 FTP Server: Lothar COMPLETED! Thank You!
  18. Fence repair: Gena  COMPLETED! Thank You!
  19. S21 Dome walls painting: Benton:  COMPLETED! Thank You!
  20. S21 Dome Floor finishing: Benton COMPLETED! Thank You!
  21. Pln Carpet Clean: Gena COMPLETED! Thank You!
  22. Lib Network: Charles COMPLETED! Thank You!
  23. Lib Network Printer Connection: Charles  COMPLETED! Thank You!
  24. S21 new Battle Station: Jeff, Mimmo, Tom, Wes COMPLETED! Thank You!
  25. Pln Old Projector returned to Walker County Planetarium: Roy COMPLETED! Thank You!
  26. Lib RJ 45 Connection: Charles COMPLETED! Thank You!
  27. S21 Door opening Fix: Lars, Mimmo, Daniele  COMPLETED! Thank You!
  28. Facility Entrance Signs, Neil  COMPLETED! Thank You!
  29. Pln Projector Install: Roy, Wes,  STARTED (Star Sphere operational! moving to the planets!)
  30. S21 "Old" CCD Camera: Wes, Mimmo STARTED (Battle Station ready)
  31. S21 Ctrl Room Floor: Mimmo
  32. S21 Mirror Grinding Machine: John, Mimmo
  33. Stu User Manual: John
  34. S21 Door knob - unassigned
  35. Ang stairs Handrail; unassigned
  36. Pln User Manual: unassigned (Megan?)
  37. C16 Floor paint: unassigned
  38. C16 Network: unassigned
  39. Pln debris from ceiling tiles in front showcase: unassigned
  40. S21 Install new AC Unit: unassigned
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