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Terry Richardson
Physics and Astronomy

Photo Terry Richardson
Professor Terry Richardson

Professor Assists NASA with Cutting Edge Telescope
by Schanen Sanders

In the office of physics and astronomy professor Terry Richardson, a fan sits on a chair. The fan is for cooling the room, but, as the professor demonstrates, it can also be used as a teaching tool. Richardson demonstrates one of Newton's Laws of Physics by turning off the fan, balancing it carefully on an empty pizza box on the chair, and then turning the fan on high. The result: the fan tips backward because of the force of the air moving forward.

The physics of this phenomenon excites and intrigues Richardson, as it should any physics professor, but the project he is currently involved with moves far beyond the "fan on the chair" demonstration. He's taking his expertise to outer space.

"Since I was in the fifth grade, the first time I took astronomy, I knew I wanted to do astronomy," Richardson said. "I thought it was exciting, and it still is exciting." He began his studies in physics courses as an undergraduate at University of South Carolina and went on to get his master's in astronomy at Vanderbilt University. He has been teaching physics and astronomy classes at the College of Charleston for nearly 25 years.

Richardson's astronomical interests include binary stars, which he researched in graduate school, and the small bodies of the solar system, such as comets, asteroids, and meteors. But his newest interest is so demanding of his time and talents that he's had to go on sabbatical for a semester to get into it.

Richardson's newest project is the result of an inter-institutional collaboration with a group of bio-chemists at University of South Carolina. They are working together to make a new kind of telescope mirror, using epoxy instead of glass, which will make the mirrors lighter in weight and cheaper in cost. The mirrors are made by spin-casting the epoxy, which just means spinning it in a dish until the liquid is hard. "Lo and behold, the natural surface of a spun liquid is a parabola, and that's the ideal surface for a telescope mirror," Richardson explained.

The difference between the spun epoxy and spun glass is that after the glass is spun, it will still need to be polished smooth, which can take up to a year to do, not to mention the high cost of the equipment used in the process. Also, there's only a certain size that glass mirrors can be before they begin to sag and become distorted. The epoxy mirrors are lighter and can therefore be made bigger. "The bigger the mirror, the deeper you can see into space and clearer the objects will be,"
Richardson said.

Lisa Brodhacker is a graduate student at USC who is working with Richardson on this project. The group at USC needed help in developing the testing method of the mirrors, which is where Richardson came in. "We had the mirrors, but we didn't know how to test them," Brodhacker said. "Had it not been for his expertise in physics, we wouldn't have been able to continue the research." Brodhacker has known Richardson for about three and a half years and has been greatly inspired by his expertise. "His expertise is very high, but he's very humble and always willing to explain things," she said.

NASA is also interested in this collaborative effort. The space agency is funding $250,000 to Richardson and his research partner, USC's Wally Scrivens. The project is expected to take at least two and a half years to complete.

NASA enlisted the expertise of Richardson and the USC group to manufacture and test four of these epoxy telescope mirrors, measuring two meters across, for a project that involves infrared laser communication with Mars probes. The idea is that NASA can send more information with infrared lasers than with radio, back and forth from Mars to Earth. "The head of the project came out to see us," Richardson said. "I was pretty impressed, he didn't send out any gofers."

Richardson is so excited to be involved in this project with NASA that he's losing sleep over it. "I've been working 14 hours a day for the past four days to try and get ready to test these new bigger mirrors," Richardson said. The group at USC does most of the manufacturing of the mirrors, while Richardson tests them in Charleston at his makeshift optics lab. "My wife let me take over our rental apartment, and our rental apartment is now my optics lab," Richardson said. "It's a one-room studio apartment and it's really long, so I can send laser beams back and forth."

Richardson shows off a photo he took of the moon. "This is the first astronomical picture taken with a mirror like this," he explained. "It's done with our mirror, and no one else has done this. No one's ever gotten anything this good before." The photo was taken by a telescope Richardson made, complete with his epoxy mirror inside.