Dominicans built the largest telescope in the region

Every time Manuel Grullón talks about his project, his skin crawls. He cannot hide the excitement of being able to observe the night sky with the new telescope of M42 Astrotours, a Dominican “astrotourism” company. It is not just any telescope, it is a very large one that uses a 25-inch primary mirror, which was used by NASA and acquired to fulfill the dream of building, in the Dominican Republic, a mobile telescope with the power of a world-class observatory.

On Saturday, May 7, a group of astronomy enthusiasts traveled to Matanzas, Baní, to make the first technical test of the telescope named Márohu, the Taino god of clear skies, which was also selected in 2019 to name the G-type star Wasp-6 in the Dominican Republic by popular vote at the NameExoWorlds event of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Márohu is a newtonian optics telescope with Dobson-type mount, integrated electronic locator and tracking, a focal length of 3200 mm, a primary mirror of F5 aperture, manufactured by Galaxy Optics, with a diameter of 25 inches (635 mm) and a 4-inch Antares secondary mirror.

Manuel Grullón explains about the mirror: “We have confirmed the trajectory of the 25-inch mirror we are using at Márohu, through its vendor Jim Burr, founder and President of JMI Telescopes (Jim’s Mobile, Inc.). We have learned that this mirror was initially designed for use in reflecting telescopes that would act as ground receivers for the study of communications in space via directed lasers as a more efficient alternative to radio frequency communications. The project was initiated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in partnership with NASA in 2001, but was cancelled in the following years due to budget cuts. JMI Telescopes sold two units to JPL”.

After the NASA project was canceled, Jim Burr reacquired the mirrors and they were offered for sale in 2018. In 2020 the mirror is acquired by Dominican mechanical engineer and amateur astronomer Oscar Lithgow, who would be responsible for manufacturing Márohu for M42.

M42 Astrotours is the first Dominican company of astrotourism and events for the enjoyment of the wonders of the sky directed by its CEO Manuel Grullón, who is also the National Outreach Coordinator and IAU (International Astronomical Union) Dark Skies Ambassador for the Dominican Republic. M42 also counts as COO Manuel Gómez, industrial engineer and amateur astronomer.

This company has among its purposes to increase the supply of tourist content and entertainment events by creating multisensory astronomical experiences for the delight of people.

“Experiences that bring them closer to a unifying cosmic perspective that allows them a better appreciation of the work necessary for the preservation of all our natural resources including the dark skies and thus contribute to the development of communities that have this resource,” explained Grullón.

M42 began operations in 2017, and just between February 2021 and February 2022 they have been able to serve more than 5000 tourists in different activities and events.

For the CEO of M42 every day the quality of the skies of the DR and the world deteriorates, “we are losing dark skies at a very accelerated rate,” he said.

According to the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate Change of Mexico, the dark sky is a unique natural resource: “It has the intangible value of the experience and enjoyment of nature. It is said that the sky belongs to everyone and it is for good reason: when we look up at the star-filled night sky, we contemplate and perhaps appreciate humanity’s place in the vast cosmos.”

Experts estimate that 50% of the U.S. population is unaware of the dark sky in its natural state, because of artificial light.

Dusk falls on the day of the test and the group of enthusiasts unloads the disassembled telescope from a van, they must hurry before night falls. Oscar Lithgow is a mechanical engineer and amateur astronomer, as well as a telescope maker.

For just over six months he spent much of his time building Márohu. He used wood, carbon fiber and other materials for the frame that must precisely contain the two mirrors that will serve to observe the sky as never before in the country.

The telescope also has a sophisticated system for searching and tracking objects in the sky, also designed and manufactured by Lithgow. This system is controlled by an open source mobile application, which allows to search with high precision any astronomical object automatically with previous calibration.

The test was also attended by Erick Ramos, a technical expert in optics, in addition to being well respected in the country as an amateur astronomer and former president of the Dominican Astronomical Society.

Ramos supervised the adjustments of Márohu before the test, with great expectations of what the device could be capable of. He knows all about the quality of the mirrors and was anxiously awaiting sunset.

The telescope is calibrated with three stars, so that any object, star, planet, galaxy, nebula, cluster, etc. can be accurately tracked.

Every time Lithgow orders the telescope to move, the sound of the engines resounds like in a science fiction movie. His first target is the moon.

The concave mirror is so powerful that it is necessary to put a filter on the optics to be able to directly observe the moon in the crescent phase. The lunar phase allows to see in detail the craters with projected shadows, highlighting the lunar topography. Gaston Junca, an amateur astronomer, while observing the natural satellite for the first time with Márohu, is excited to see several drop-shaped craters in great detail.

As the moon falls on the horizon behind the impressive windmills of Matafongo Park, astronomers continue to fine-tune Márohu, so that they can observe other celestial objects in a darker sky. However, the lights of the surrounding villages diminish the telescope’s capacity.

Midnight arrives and without the moonlight, the real test begins. For hours the astronomy lovers pointed the telescope at the Omega Centauri cluster, the Ring, Trifid and Lagoon nebulae, galaxies, Jupiter, Saturn and its moons.

The hours pass and everyone takes their turn to observe the southern Dominican sky. The sound of the engines tracking the objects is permanent, only the sunrise interrupts the astronomers.

As they carefully disassemble Márohu, each of them cannot hide the satisfaction of the test. For those present, the telescope exceeded all expectations.

Grullón hopes that the telescope will not only serve the purpose of entertainment events, he believes that the telescope will become a research tool and a contribution to astronomy. After this test, activities will be carried out and he aspires that the Márohu will be a sort of “Dominican artist”, something that people want to see and appreciate.

“Bad lighting policies, poor lamp designs and inadequate installation, affect the levels of darkness in the night sky and therefore the life of us, as well as thousands of species such as birds, mammals, reptiles, insects among others. With Márohu we will show people why it is necessary to take care of the dark sky. It will be an instrument for many to make the discovery of that which has already been lost in many places and we have to preserve and take care of where it can still be appreciated. The wonders of a dark sky, the wildlife that lives under it and the sense of belonging that comes from appreciating the universe from those places,” concluded Grullón.


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