eagle nebula

The Eagle Nebula, a cluster of more than 8,000 stars, some 7,000 light years from Earth, was shot through filters in the new PlaneWave telescope at the College of Charleston. Provided by George Chartas/College of Charleston

A cloud of gassy dust drifts through a cluster of stars so far from Earth that the fastest spacecraft would take 26 million years to reach it.

But you can soon get a look without leaving downtown.

The most powerful telescope in the state was just installed in the Physics and Astronomy Observatory at the College of Charleston — a 24-inch PlaneWave.

It, and an array of smaller scopes, will be focused on the cosmos when the department resumes its monthly rooftop open house events, probably as early as November. The events usually are held the first Friday of the month.

new telescope

A new, 24-inch PlaneWave telescope installed at the College of Charleston is considered the most powerful telescope in the state. Bo Petersen/Staff  

The scope, which looks like a miniature space capsule, is a big advance for the college's astrophysics program. It will allow students to further probe black hole mysteries that make up cutting edge studies already winning the school international attention.

A five-minute filtered exposure of the cluster, the Lagoon Nebula, was among the first images that physics and astronomy professor George Chartas snapped with the telescope's built-in camera.

"Oh, wow," he said when he saw the precision and clarity. "Did we just take this?"

blue nebula

A blue nebula at least 6,000 light years from Earth was among the first celestial wonders to be photographed through a new 24-inch telescope at College of Charleston.  Provided by George Chartas/College of Charleston

The scope will let students do live research on the sort of stuff they used find in textbooks, he said.

The PlaneWave isn't just a set of lenses. It's a software driven apparatus that turns the scope where the operator at the keyboard tells it to go, then records its findings on a network that can be accessed for studies away from the observatory.

Potentially, the telescope could be operated one day by remote control from off site.

The $150,000 scope carries another $30,000 in camera and filter equipment that astounded recently retired professor Terry Richardson. The camera and filters can be dialed in while you're observing through the lens, something that used to take a half day of precision mounting and re-setting, he said.

"The mirrors in that instrument are made of Fused Silica, which is an ultra-pure synthetic glass. It is engineered to provide crystal clear images even through temperature changes, which are common in urban viewing locations," said Jon Wilmesherr, the learning resources dean at Mayland Community College in Spruce Pine, N.C.

In 2016, the college won accreditation by the International Dark-Sky Association as the first Star Park in the Southeast.

George and Terry

Astrophysics Prof. George Chartas and emeritus Prof. Terry Richardson have been astonished at the precision of the equipment on the College of Charleston's new 24-inch telescope. Bo Petersen/Staff

The clarity of the images is the key to getting superior results for scientific applications, Wilmesherr said.

"The students and researchers at the College of Charleston are very fortunate to have such a wonderful instrument," he said.

The scope will be available to undergraduate, as well as graduate researchers, Chartas and Richardson said, and maybe high school students wanting to do that advanced level of astrophysics study.

"It's just a matter of getting connected (with the Physics and Astronomy department) really," Richardson said.

"Undergraduates don't usually gain access to this type of scope," Chartas said. "We're trying to make the point that undergraduates here work with the professors on experiments."

The scope joins more than two dozen other smaller scopes in the department that will be set up on the rooftop platform outside for the public to get an eyeful when the open houses resume.

The observatory posts announcements on its Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/CofCObservatory.

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Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.