The physics department has opened a new observatory on the roof of the Umbeck Science and Mathematics Center. A small opening ceremony in the new space was held on Wednesday, Oct. 20 for students and some faculty.
“We didn’t want to invite the whole school because we wouldn’t want to have 200 people on the roof. That would be bad,” Assistant Professor of Physics Nathalie Haurberg explained.
Despite the low-key opening, Haurberg is eager to introduce the new equipment to the Knox student body and later, the Galesburg community.
“We want everyone to know about what’s happening and encourage students to take Introduction to Astronomy classes if they have no science background and take Observational Astronomy if they are science majors,” Hauberg said.
The observatory is not currently in use for classes, but the physics department will be offering an Optics course in the winter and Introduction to Astronomy and Observational Astronomy classes in the spring.
The Observational Astronomy course was a major incentive for completing the observatory this year.
“It’s a course where physics students actually go and do observations themselves and do projects with the observations. To do that we needed a better way to set up every night,” Hauberg said. “Previously, we were literally dragging the equipment up the stairs and dragging it back down, which is hundreds of pounds of equipment.”
Haurberg has been working on the observatory since she became a professor at Knox in 2013 and has steadily turned it into what she calls a “state-of-the-art instrument.” In her tenure, the department has purchased a new CCD camera for the telescope, a tool called spectograph that allows students to get different observations and more information about light and a new mount, which helps to point the telescope.
“Putting the dome on the roof was the final step,” she said.
Haurberg estimates that together, the equipment price has ranged about $10,000 with the help of the Hummel Grant and Geer Grant.
In 10 more years, the physics department hopes to have another observatory at Green Oaks for optimal night skies.
“We bought this dome knowing we were going to put up a bigger, permanent dome on the roof, but that we want something at Green Oaks,” Haurberg said.
Senior Izak McGieson came to Knox with a background in astronomy and has built his own telescopes. He has taken astronomy courses at Knox and plans on being a teaching assistant for an astronomy class in the spring. Although he has not used the new observatory yet, he is excited for the prospect.
“It seems like it’s going to be a totally modern, small observatory which is exactly what Knox should have,” McGieson said. “There’s nothing like going up to the roof of SMC and taking a picture of a galaxy or a star cluster and then thinking, ‘Oh, what is this?’ It’s a huge tide of gas, way up there that I can’t possibly conceive of its size, but here I am on earth measuring it and learning about it from this little, 11-inch piece of glass.”
McGieson said the current telescope lens is sufficient for Knox’s purposes.
“It’s perfectly sufficient, and to be honest, you’re in Galesburg. The skies aren’t great, there’s some light pollution, and you don’t really need or you shouldn’t spend so much money on a nice mirror,” he said.
He also said that building an observatory at Green Oaks would be a great opportunity because it is completely dark on the dark sky map.
McGieson appreciates the impact that an observing astronomy can have on him.
“It’s one of the fields of science that is most accessibly awe-inspiring. Quantum Mechanics you can work at, but it’s sort of inaccessible. But in Astronomy, you can look through a telescope and you can really stop and think about what it means, and what you’re seeing. It’s cool.”