George R. Wallace, Jr., Astrophysical Observatory

Located in Westford, MA, the George R. Wallace, Jr., Astrophysical Observatory (WAO) is MIT's local teaching and research optical observatory. Dr. David Osip '89 who served as the assistant director/manager for several years, left MIT this year to assume the position of instrument scientist at Las Campanas Observatory. During his tenure of over four years, he initiated several important improvements to WAO, including the rebuilding of the 24-inch telescope. Ms. Chelsey Logan continues to serve as the onsite observatory specialist. Other staff—usually undergraduate student observers and graduate students—are coordinated through research programs. Undergraduates working on the various projects are funded in part by NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program and in part by NASA and NSF research grants to Professor Elliot.


The site's observing facilities consist of 24-inch and 16-inch reflecting telescopes, each in its own dome, a four-bay shed with roll-off roof that houses three Celestron 14-inch Cassegrain telescopes and a computer-controlled Meade 8-inch Cassegrain telescope, and several Celestron 8-inch Cassegrain portable telescopes. Additional infrastructure includes a building with an electronics workshop, data analysis computer facilities, and an office for the observatory specialist. An interesting addition to the observatory facilities this year was 5-inch refractor (apparently purchased by MIT from Alvin Clark & Sons in 1897) that was refurbished for WAO by the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston. This instrument can now be used for visual observations, but it is not permanently mounted. Work continued in order to solve problems that arose from the rebuilding of the 24-inch telescope. Plans were made to improve the mounts for the drive motors that would remove the remaining backlash.

Research and Student Work

A major research effort last year was the successful prediction of two stellar occultations by Pluto, led by graduate student Michael Person (Class of 1994), Kelly Clancy ( Class of 2002), and Professor Elliot. The candidate stars had been identified several years ago as part of WAO's long-term observational program in this area. Astrometric data from WAO were combined with data from other observatories and reduced by a team of students: Shen Qu '04, Sarah Eddy SM '02, Erica McEvoy '04, and Katie Carbonari '03. The successful predictions allowed teams of observers, led by MIT, to be within the zone of visibility of the occultations, most notably at Mauna Kea Observatory and other sites in the Western United States. The results showed that Pluto's atmosphere had changed substantially since it was last measured in 1988, with a doubling of the surface pressure. Further results from the successful observing campaign were reported in Colette Salyk's '03 senior thesis, and more are being incorporated in Person's PhD thesis.

Other student participation at the observatory included the senior-thesis observations of Alison Klesman '03 under the supervision of Dr. Slivan '84 and Professor Binzel. Several events were organized with the campus chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. Twelve students in Professor Elliot's fall laboratory course, 8.287J-12.410J Observational Techniques of Optical Astronomy, used the WAO facilities for a variety of astronomical projects, including broadband imaging of star clusters to construct color-magnitude diagrams and the deconvolution of double-star images. Another course in which the students used the observatory for laboratory work, 12.409 Observing the Stars and Planets, was taught in the spring semester.

James L. Elliot
Professor of Planetary Astronomy

More information about the George R. Wallace, Jr., Astrophysical Observatory can be found on the web at


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