Credit:Taod, "Self-portrait in spin"

Christina Dunn; Star power
by Lauren Bertin

[Article featured in The Bennington Free Press, September 2008]

Staring up at the night sky in Bennington, it is impossible not to be moved by how mysterious the universe is. We have all at one point or another dreamt of traveling to the moon. While most of us will not have the opportunity, we can definitely get closer to the moon this semester by looking through the telescope at the Stickney Observatory. For the first time, in a very long time, the observatory has been reopened to the public.

Christina Dunn, a guest professor, is the person behind this astronomical Disneyland experience. Originally from Montana, she has frequented the Northeast many times before, but now has found herself in Bennington, Vermont. An undergraduate at Williams College with a degree in both Astrophysics and Math, and a graduate student from Harvard University with a degree in Software Engineering, she comes to us with an abundance of knowledge.

As a child, Christina Dunn gazed up at the night sky of Montana and wondered about the miracles that it held. This has led her to the end of the universe and back. Currently, Dunn is part of a project that is constructing a gigantic telescope that many believe will transport us to places we can hardly even imagine.

The European Extremely Large Telescope is expected to unveil the first generation of stars and planets, as well as black holes and dark matter, which encompass the majority of the universe. While the actual opening of the telescope is set for 2017, and this is just an approximation, the view from this telescope will be like no other. Its 42-meter diameter mirror and 906 hexagonal pieces will transform the current resolution and light power. If everything goes as planned, it will be the largest telescope in the world.

In creating a gigantic mirror for a larger than average telescope, the manufacturers have encountered many obstacles. One major impediment is the way in which the mirrors must be polished. Each piece of the mirror has to be perfectly shaped to assure that the least amount of energy is lost and that the least amount of light is scattered. Dunn resolved this challenge by devising innovative techniques.

To achieve this type of precise polishing with mirrors of this size, the method of cutting the mirror had to be adjusted. Carving the mirror in random directions enhances the smoothness of the mirror, compared to previous carving techniques. Dunn's design also ensured that the carved line would never cross itself, as seen in the above blueprint, which will moreover improve the overall image quality.

The prototype of this mirror shaping apparatus is shown here, along with magnified images depicting the differences between the prior and new methods. The latter method visibly demonstrates a smoothness that is unseen in older mirrors.

Even though our telescope is unable to reach the first objects that formed in our universe, we now have the chance to see Jupiter on a clear night. Whether you are taking astronomy or not, this is an opportunity that you should not miss.