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Imagine walking through campus on a clear night, where the dark and velvety sky is lit up with 100 billion x 100 billion stars – and those are only the ones in our observable universe! It must seem unimaginable that the mystery of the faraway lights will ever be solved. However, there is an opportunity on our campus where the night sky can be put in perspective, but never lose its wonder.
There have been rumors in reference to a spaceship that has landed across from the baseball field. However, they are false. The half dome shaped building on stilts is Principia College’s observatory. By definition, an observatory is a ground-based structure used to observe the radio and visible light portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as celestial events.
Prin’s observatory was completed in the winter of 1996 and opened in the spring, with a Celestron C8 Telescope. The 16-foot Ashdome has a motorized rotation and window and sits 32 feet above the ground. Behind the scenes, making this observatory possible were Dr. David Cornell, math professor Cathy Hooper, and Dr. Paul Robinson.
Cornell worked to have a more permanent telescope in the dome and so on June 18, 1998, the current Principia College telescope was installed. Prin’s telescope has a 16-inch mirror and instead of being a Maybeck, it is a design of Ritchey-Chretien. The actual focal length of the telescope is 4,000 millimeters, manufactured by Optomechanics Research. It is computer controlled and can download information allowing it to find certain objects in the sky and track different stars or planets across the sky. There is a camera attachment that allows for pictures to be taken of the Moon, Sun (with a solar filter), and the asteroid Vesta.
The observatory started as an idea alongside the building of a new science center because the students and faculty at Principia have always valued astronomy. After the decision had been made to build an observatory, the work was then put into finding sources to fund a $77,000 telescope, plus accessories, adding to over $100,000 without the cost of the structure itself.
The first research-driven use of the observatory was for collecting data on minor planets, which culminated to be submitted to the Minor Planet Center, run by the International Astronomical Union at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There was also research on occultation to help determine the shape and size of an asteroid. The first senior capstone involved contributing to the construction of the observatory, observation with the telescope and an analysis of observing the condition of light pollution with slight physical interferences.
There have been many students since then that have used the observatory for research and there will continue to be many more. Cornell said, “People on campus love to see astronomical events like eclipses, transits, or just views of the night sky. I believe the most important aspect [for the community at large] to be the sessions for viewing, which are hosted by trained students and faculty.”
When we look at the stars, we are looking back in time because at the great distance that they are from us it takes many lightyears for the light waves to reach our eyes. Thus, because scientists believe our solar system is 14 billion years old, we can’t observe light coming from anything more than 14 billion lightyears away. The universe is vast beyond comparison or real understanding but it is observable with the technology the students of Principia have available at their fingertips.
With Prin’s telescope distant planets like Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are observable, including the most romantic, our moon. So the question is, how does a Prin student take advantage of this unique resource?
One option is to join the Astronomy Club. But if joining a club isn’t for you, then every clear Friday night, the Observatory is open to all students and community members from 9 to 11 p.m. in the fall and 8 to 10 p.m. in the winter. However, junior Tori Cheatham, the club’s president, says it is looking for more involvement and members so there can more fun activities like watching the stars and eating pizza or inviting speakers to come and discuss their astronomical studies or experiences.
The reason the Astronomy Club was first started was because the observatory was not being used to its full potential. Cheatham said if anyone is interested in stars, telescopes, planets or training to operate the telescope and its command software, then the Astronomy Club offers all of these. Cheatham loves the Astronomy Club because “it’s interesting be able to look at the sky and know what I am looking at.” She also said it is also good experience to know how to run the technology.
The heavens are infinitely expansive, and Principia College offers the opportunity to experience and understand them through the observatory and the Astronomy Club. As Plato once said, “Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.”