Topping-out Ceremony Celebrates New Keeble Observatory

News Story categories: Astrophysics
Students looking out of the Keeble observatory telescope

Randolph-Macon College’s new Keeble Observatory is currently under construction. The 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, $17.5 million science building.

At a recent topping-out ceremony, faculty, staff, alumni, students and friends of the college gathered and signed the final panel as it was placed in the dome atop the Observatory. Among the attendees were Maria Wornom Rippe and Peter Rippe, whose lead gift helped make the Observatory a reality.

Generous Donors
Maria and Peter Rippe are generous supporters of many areas of the college. Their interest in astronomy was peaked recently when they audited a class taught by Physics Professor George Spagna, director of the Keeble Observatory. When they learned that RMC was hoping to build a new observatory, they were the first to step up and offer their support. The Rippes’ gift commitment is providing a substantial amount of the funding needed for the new building, dome, walkway, and telescope for the observatory. Alumnus Larry Haun ’61 is also generously supporting this project.

A Teaching Laboratory
“The Observatory is primarily a teaching laboratory, but we also plan to conduct weekly public viewing sessions,” says Spagna, who has served as director of the Keeble Observatory since 1989. “In addition to stargazing and planet-watching, we’ll be equipped for photography and photometry using our CCD camera.”

RMC students enrolled in classes such as Introductory Astronomy, and Observational Astronomy will use the Observatory. Keeble Observatory is also available for student research projects, and student assistants will conduct public viewing sessions in the facility, which houses a Ritchey-Chretien telescope, made by APM-Telescopes.

“The new telescope will provide us with vastly improved optical performance,” says Spagna. “The 40-centimeter telescope has 77 percent more light-gathering power than our previous 30- centimeter telescope, with much better off-axis imaging and vastly improved pointing accuracy. Keeble will be a 21st century facility for a 21st century college.”

Astronomy has been part of Randolph-Macon since 1872.

“We still have the telescope that supported RMC’s original astronomy course—it’s displayed next to the entrance to the new Observatory—and we have in storage both the original 12-inch Newtonian telescope from 1963 and the 12-inch Cassegrain telescope that replaced it in 1968,” says Spagna, who hopes to put them on display soon.

The official dedication of the new Observatory will take place in fall 2017.

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 RMC’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
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.