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Starry Skies: R-MC Dedicates New Keeble Observatory (VIDEO)

Nov 07, 2017


Keeble ribbon cuttingUnder starry skies, Randolph-Macon College dedicated its new Keeble Observatory on November 3, 2017. The evening celebration brought together students, staff, faculty, alumni, and friends of the college. Special guests included Maria Wornom Rippe and Peter M. Rippe, whose lead gift helped make the new Observatory a reality.

Keeble Observatory, connected by a walkway from the second floor of the northeast side of Copley Science Center, is also accessible through Macon F. Brock, Jr. Hall—the college's new science building. The Rev. Amy Spagna '98 gave the invocation.

Continuing a Tradition
Physics Professor George F. Spagna Jr. has served as director of the Keeble Observatory since 1989.

"Astronomy has been a part of the college curriculum since 1872, and we've had an observatory since opening the Lutz Observatory in 1890, replaced by the original Keeble Observatory in 1963," said Spagna. "Through the generosity of the Rippes we are proud to continue that tradition into the 21st century. I'm thrilled that we can offer our students a state- of-the-art Observatory, and I'm happy that we'll be continuing our longstanding outreach to the community through public viewing opportunities. I'm also pleased that with this new facility we will continue to recognize the Observatory's namesake, Professor Keeble, who taught at Randolph-Macon College from 1919 to 1952."

The Crown Jewel of the Campus
Katherine Rueff Turk '07 majored in physics and minored in astrophysics and mathematics at R-MC and earned her Ph.D. from Notre Dame. At the dedication, Turk lauded R-MC's commitment to providing students with an exceptional education.

"What I love about Randolph-Macon is that it invests in its students," said Turk, who served as a student-assistant in the former Observatory when she was a student at R-MC. "Knowing that we are here today to celebrate a new telescope and Observatory absolutely invigorates my heart." Thanks to the new technology that the Observatory offers, she said, students can be "eager explorers" and will have "opportunities to make a true impact on science and society."

R-MC President Robert R. Lindgren called the new Keeble Observatory the "crown jewel" of the college's Building Extraordinary capital campaign.

"I like to say that at Randolph-Macon students learn how to learn and how to see in new ways that will make a positive difference for them over the course of their entire lives," said Lindgren.  "There is no more poignant example of this than why we are here today: the opportunity to learn in this beautiful new Keeble Observatory, and under the guidance of Physics Professor extraordinaire Dr. George Spagna. Professor Spagna makes it his life's work to teach people how to see the magnificence of our universe. He now has the universe at his very fingertips with this extraordinary new instrument in our Keeble Observatory. I am confident that each of us will be the beneficiaries of his expertise and guidance, amplified a thousand-fold with the gift of this marvelous new Observatory."

Generous Donors
Lindgren told guests that the relationship between Randolph-Macon College and Peter and Maria Rippe goes back many years.

"Maria's uncle, Dr. Paul H. Wornom, Class of 1937, established the Dr. Paul H. Wornom Pre-Medicine Endowment, and the Rippes continue to generously support it today," said Lindgren. "Peter and Maria also created the Wornom-Rippe Faculty Development Endowment, a critical and generous fund to help the college recruit outstanding new faculty. Their dedication to the fine arts programs at R-MC is unmatched, and in January 2015, the Rippes enrolled in a January Term course, taught by Professor Spagna, called The Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Astronomy. The course was transformational, elevating their interest in astronomy into a passion."

In 2016, when a discussion about building a new Observatory began, the Rippes wholeheartedly lent their support to the project. The Rippes' gift commitment provided a substantial amount of the funding needed for the new building, dome, walkway, and telescope for the observatory.

"The Rippes truly embody the best of our Randolph-Macon community—they are compassionate, they care for the community, and they relentlessly enrich their lives and the lives of others through new experiences," said Lindgren.

Maria Wornom Rippe said that the new Observatory "challenges us all to a greater vision of the universe that we live in." Referring to his own career background, Peter Rippe said, "This Observatory bodes well for the future of Randolph-Macon’s current and future involvement with astronomy. Maria and I are very pleased to be part of this project. Go, R-MC! From the Center of the Universe…on to the cosmos!"

R-MC alumnus Larry Haun '61 also generously supported construction of the new Keeble Observatory.

New Observatory Open for Public Viewings
The Observatory is primarily a teaching laboratory, but there are also plans in place to conduct weekly public viewing sessions. R-MC student-assistants will conduct the public viewing sessions, which will take place Wednesday evenings through fall semester from 7 – 9:30 p.m. (weather permitting). The dates for fall public viewings are November 8, 15, 29, and December 6.

To enter the Keeble Observatory: Visitors should use the Caroline Street entrance to Smithy Hall, or walk through the main entrance of the Copley Science Center. The Observatory is bridged from the 2nd floor, northeast corner of Copley. Those needing to do so are invited to use the elevator, which is located in the back lobby of Copley.

Planet-watching and Research
In addition to stargazing and planet-watching, Keeble Observatory is equipped for photography and photometry using a CCD (Charge-Coupled Device) camera. R-MC students enrolled in classes such as Introductory Astronomy, and Observational Astronomy will use the Observatory, which is also available for student research projects. The Observatory houses a Ritchey-Chretien telescope, made by APM-Telescopes.

The new telescope provides a vastly improved optical performance. The 40-centimeter telescope has 77 percent more light-gathering power than the college’s previous 30- centimeter telescope, with much better off-axis imaging and vastly improved pointing accuracy.

Astronomy has been part of Randolph-Macon since 1872. The college still has the telescope that supported R-MC's original astronomy course; it is displayed next to the entrance to the new Observatory. In addition, the college has in storage both the original 12-inch Newtonian telescope from 1963 and the 12-inch Cassegrain telescope that replaced it in 1968.

The History of Keeble Observatory
Construction of the original Keeble Observatory building was initiated to house a 12-inch Newtonian telescope built and donated in 1960 by Foy N. Hibbard, a former director of the United States Weather Bureau in Richmond, Virginia. The dome was completed and the Hibbard telescope was first used in 1963. The Cassegrain telescope in the original Observatory was purchased from Tinsley Laboratories with funding assistance from the National Science Foundation in 1966. In 1988 the telescope drive was completely replaced during renovations, which also included raising the telescope's pier and rebuilding the observing platform.

Adjacent to the original Observatory was the three-meter dish of the 1.4 GHz "Center of the Universe Radio Telescope (CURT1)." On the roof of the Copley Science Center was the dipole array for R-MC's second radio telescope, dubbed CURT2. The college decommissioned this telescope in 2013, and CURT1 was decommissioned in 2016.

The original facility was razed in August 2016 in preparation for building the new Keeble Observatory.

Dr. William Keeble
Dr. William Houston Keeble, distinguished professor of physics at Randolph-Macon College from 1919 until his retirement in 1952, was a native of Blount, Tennessee.

He studied at Maryville College and at the University of Tennessee, where he earned a B.S. in 1903. He did graduate work at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, where he worked with 1923 Nobel laureate Dr. Robert A. Millikan. Keeble was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Maryville College in 1945.

Before coming to Randolph-Macon, he was professor of physics at the College of William & Mary from 1907 to 1919. Keeble was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the American Physical Society, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the American Astronomical Society, and he was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.