COLLEGE STATION —
Necessity may be the mother of all invention, but curiosity may well be its double first cousin. Just ask Don Carona, manager of the Department of Physics and Astronomy Teaching Observatory at Texas A&M University.
What started for Carona shortly after the turn of the 21st century as yet another personal learning opportunity has since become one for the world — a free, downloadable computer application he developed to show the sunlit portion of the Earth in real time, courtesy of stock NASA images and a little Carona initiative.
Carona’s creation, known as the Sunlit Earth Dashboard Widget, debuted on Apple’s website in early May 2005 and became the site’s top download within a few weeks. One year later, it was featured in airports from Norway to the Caribbean as a tourism tool, packaged as a CD-ROM companion to Macworld Italia magazine and in use in college astronomy courses throughout the nation, including at Texas A&M.
If You Build It
Need, whether simply to know or to help others across the Texas A&M campus and the globe, has been Carona’s driving force for the majority of his 20 years with the university — a career that spans several units, including the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Texas A&M Computing and Information Services (CIS).
“Most of the apps that I develop are for me to accomplish something or at the observatory, for somebody in the department, or they’re for companions to laboratory assignments,” Carona says. “This one started out as a learning tool. I was programming in Java and C, but I hadn’t worked with graphics a lot, so I thought this would be a good way for me to learn Java graphics — how they work and that sort of thing.”
Carona notes his original goal in early 2003 was to improve upon what was offered at the time by the United States Naval Observatory, essentially a web-viewable option with dated graphics and limited functionality.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’m bound to be able to do that a little better,’ and so I went to NASA’s website, and I found they have all these beautiful images of the Earth for each month of the calendar year that show you the ice flows and snow and that sort of thing from January through December,” Carona recalls. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s perfect,’ because you can pick the image for the month. All I did from there was make it so that you could see the sunlit and shadowed regions of the Earth.
“I made it into a widget and put it on Apple’s website for download, and it just took off. It became the No. 1 downloaded widget for a long time, and it was free. I don’t charge for anything I develop.”
True to his usual form, Carona took the idea one step further, creating time-lapse videos to display events as they transpire during the course of an entire year. He thought such teaching tools would be useful in helping students to visually grasp the relevance for the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and other related phenomena. Professors at other universities, including The Ohio State University and the University of Chicago, agreed.
“I’ve had special requests to make it into different videos and things like that,” Carona says. “If somebody’s teaching a class and they want a longer range, or maybe they want to show how the distance from the Moon is affected over time, because it ebbs and flows in perigee and apogee, and so I’ve done that. That’s why there are several variants on the website.
“I have gotten requests from no less than six different countries to use it in some sort of governmental capacity, usually on a travel or tourism website. It is kind of a neat thing. There’s no genius behind it at all. It’s just purely a very simple idea that, for one reason or another, everybody seems to like — or at least a large percentage of the people who see it.”
Carona shrugs off the sensational success as “one huge accident,” a phrase that could do double duty in describing how he arrived at his current role within the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
A Star is Born
Since 2005 Carona has served as the first and only manager of the Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy Teaching Observatory, a key part of the university’s internationally known astronomy program. His many responsibilities include all operation and maintenance, from technical and logistical support for the department’s astronomy laboratory courses (an average enrollment pushing 400 students each year), to development of all related observatory outreach programs. For his myriad efforts, he has been recognized with both the university and college’s top staff awards: the President’s Meritorious Service Award (2005) and the College of Science Outstanding Staff Achievement Award (2011).
“Don is one of those rare, special people who work at observatories as hands-on astronomers,” says Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Texas A&M Astronomy Program. “He is a person who can wire up a computer system, program a server, fix a balky worm gear, tear apart a gear box to fix it, lift a dome onto runners using a crane, attach digital detectors to the focal plane, take data, reduce data — and the list goes on.
“Don is the heart and soul of the Student Observatory, and without him as the astronomer there, we would not have such an excellent lab to offer the students. The proof is in the popularity of the classes there. If you don’t sign up for the lab within a few days of the opening of registration, you will not get in, because it fills so fast!”
Carona has never claimed to be a man defined by basic requirements. Rather, his specialty involves routinely excelling in pushing the “other-duties-as-assigned” envelope — a trait that eventually earned him a second full-time job (albeit non-paying) managing a hypothetical observatory that only existed on paper. His paper, that is — 30 pages of it, more or less, that detailed his biggest dream to date for Texas A&M and the broader community: a full-fledged facility that would demonstrate a real commitment to astronomy in Aggieland.
Within those three-dozen pages back in 2002, Carona made his case for a dream observatory, a substantial upgrade from the one he ran as a contract employee in his spare time after hours and on weekends moonlighting from his full-time job as a programmer with CIS. Once his proposal won preliminary approved from the department’s astronomy committee (whose key members included current faculty Dr. Roland Allen, Dr. Alexey Belyanin, Dr. George Kattawar and Dr. James White in addition to emeritus professor Dr. Nelson Duller), Carona met with Dr. Lewis Ford, longtime professor of physics and assistant department head, and finally then-department head Dr. Thomas Adair, who authorized Carona to proceed with the extensive renovations that would make his dream a reality. Shortly after they were complete, Ford asked Carona to manage the observatory full-time, and Carona agreed.
“To Don, it was a labor of love,” Kattawar says. “He designed and monitored the construction of the observatory, which was completed in 2003 and is now the finest student observatory in the entire South. Realizing what a valuable asset he was, we hired him as our observatory manager, and this was one of the smartest things our department has ever done. This undying devotion continues even today.”
The rest, as they say, is history — one that helped to pave the way for a much brighter astronomical future for Texas A&M and the entire state of Texas. Under Carona’s leadership, the observatory has become a premier teaching resource. The facility features a 60-seat classroom, a 16-inch telescope housed under an 18-foot hydraulically operated dome, a robotic observatory with a 20-inch telescope that can be controlled remotely via the Internet, and a student observing deck that supports 16 telescope piers for 8-inch student telescopes used in various astronomy classes.
“I don’t know of another program quite like ours,” Carona says. “There are other schools with similar programs, but I think ours is unique by comparison. Our students don’t come out [to observe] just once or twice a semester; they’re out every week. They get all the hands-on they want, and they love it! There just aren’t very many laboratory classes where you can just submerge yourself into something that’s fun.”
For Carona, fun boils down to the simple love of learning and sticking to the task at hand, whether programming — which he says was “just a way for me to have something to do on cloudy nights” — or changing a program’s future.
“It was one of those things,” Carona says. “If it didn’t have a champion, there is absolutely no way that we would be where we are now. I can’t think of any other instance at this university — and I’ve been here for 20 years — where you can create an entire entity from really next-to-nothing and a small idea that just sort of transformed itself. When you get the ball rolling on a good idea, even if you don’t know it’s a good idea at the time, it will take on a life of its own, and all you have to do is hang on for the ride.
“The reality is, Texas A&M would not be as big as it is, had it not been a similarly good idea in the way that it started.”
Find more information on Texas A&M Astronomy.
Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Don W. Carona, (979) 845-0536 or email@example.com
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