“Big Woody,” one of the world’s largest portable telescopes, weighs 500 pounds and stands at 14 feet tall. It has a mirror that extends 60 inches in diameter. It can be broken down and transported by a team within a few minutes. And it was designed and created by Cal Poly’s own.
Astronomy research scholar in residence, Russ Genet, who has a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and a doctorate in astronomy, spent the past school year designing and building “Big Woody” with three architectural engineering students, Mounir El-Koussa, Laura Rice and Mike Vickery. It will allow them to conduct research never done before, Genet said. They will use him and his counterpart, “Shiny Sam,” a much smaller telescope made of aluminum, to determine diameters of nearby stars or double stars and see how far away they are from each other.
“I was interested in working on telescopes again,” Genet, who has built several smaller telescopes over the years, said. “I began thinking about what niche wasn’t filled and something that could be developed that would be useful.”
Before “Big Woody,” telescopes larger than the ones sold in stores, but smaller than those found in observatories, cost millions of dollars and required an 18-wheeler to transport.
Genet said he wanted to focus on reducing the size and structure, so he looked to the architectural engineering department to make this undertaking possible.
Though architectural engineering seems drastically different from building a telescope, the structural ideals are alike, he said.
“It seems a little strange, but structures — whether they are skyscrapers or large telescopes — the engineering involved is the same,” Genet said.
El-Koussa, who graduated from Cal Poly in June and now works as a project engineer at a local engineering firm, helped build the telescope.
“The same concepts (as engineering) apply, and after building the telescope, I better understand what I am doing now,” El-Koussa said.
The design aspect of the project aside, El-Koussa said the group members also learned better communication skills, which will help in his field.
“You meet with clients and contractors constantly, and it pays off to be a good communicator,” El-Koussa said.
Timothy Scott, who is working towards a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, helped design the control systems that will gather data and images on stars.
Scott said he heard about the telescope project in his mechatronics class, and because he had previous experience working with software and control systems, he decided to help out. Though astronomy isn’t his particular field of study, it will be helpful in his future career, Scott said.
“Saying you worked on the largest portable telescope always helps on your résumé,” Scott said. “It shows that I have familiarity with working on different kinds of projects, and that I can speak intelligently about different sensors and control methods.”
Despite only working on this project for a month, he has hooked up the motor and encoders that enable the group to track the position of the telescope and tell what position it is pointing.
Technological capabilities aside, the high-grade ApplePly plywood used to build the telescope also made the team eligible to enter the ApplePly design contest. The $3,000 first prize award is usually given to unique furniture designs, but this year the three teammates won and split the prize money.
“I guess a lot of telescope makers have used their wood in the past,” El-Koussa said. “I was excited; it was a good chunk of money and good publicity for them.”
Despite not yet applying to the Guinness Book of World Records for the official title of “Biggest Telescope in the World,” Genet is already working on the initial design for an even larger portable telescope.