Mosaic / November 9, 2017

Astronomy Department Discusses: SMC renovations, campus lights and extraterrestrial life

The Science and Mathematics Center (SMC) was on the priority list to be renovated in 2014. Once donations came in for the creation of the Whitcomb Art Building, the renovation for SMC took a backseat. This delay has allowed more time for the astronomy department to suggest updates that could be beneficial to the department, as so far the renovation plans have not included any updates that would affect them specifically.

“There is  fundraising occurring right now for the renovation of SMC eventually, we’re starting with the A-core which has to do with renovating a lot of the mechanical things that needed updating,” Assistant Professor of Astronomy Nathalie Haurberg said. “None of those things affect astronomy, but in general are good things for students to have. There is a possibility there will be some changes done to the roof for the observatory. That’s not certain right now though.”

For Haurberg, the main concern is making the rooftop observatory more accessible. To get there, students have to climb several steps of stairs and also go through a locked mechanical room responsible for heating the building. The only time students can go to the observatory is if a faculty member lends them a key.

“It’s not [accessible] at all. There are a lot of stairs and there isn’t an elevator,” junior astronomy minor Zoe Meyer said. “There are posters about renovations to the A-core all over SMC, but none of them have mentioned the roof.”

According to Haurberg, the astronomy department has been talking with the architects who are planning the construction of the SMC renovations. They are currently getting the updates priced by the planners, but no promises have been made. The astronomy department hopes to get the walkable space on the roof extended, so that they can get a bigger observatory dome. The dome is used as a protective barrier against the elements  for the telescope on the roof.

“The dome we have isn’t ideal. It’s kinda small and you can only fit a few people into it. Our goal is to get a bigger dome and additionally a bigger telescope,” Haurberg said. “Also, the dome opens only as a semi-circle, which means the telescope can’t look directly up…which is actually the best place to point a telescope.”

Haurberg stated that looking directly up at the sky with a telescope is the best direction since light pollution will be the least present there. Light pollution is the phenomena of man-made lights scattering into the night atmosphere. Too much light pollution and star-gazing becomes difficult. According to Haurberg, the campus is one of the brightest places in Galesburg and therefore, the least conducive to observations. Many of the lights on campus are decorational and point upwards towards the night sky.

“Galesburg itself is kind of bright, but if you go out to places like Lake Store and get to the outskirts [of the city]–you can find some pretty good skies,” Haurberg said. “Any sort of big space that’s open to the public is a good place to start.”

The astronomy department is also looking to get a new telescope. If the department does get a new telescope, they hope to take the old telescope to Green Oaks where they can have a setup for students away from the light polluted campus. A new telescope would be a great benefit for students who take the Observational Astronomy course with Haurberg.

“Our telescope can only see in normal color,” Meyer said. “The Orion Nebula looks kinda boring in the normal light spectrum.”

In addition to Observational Astronomy, Haurberg also teaches Finding Extraterrestrial Life, Extragalactic Astrophysics and Stellar Astrophysics. For Meyer, the Finding Extraterrestrial Life course was what got her initially interested in the astronomy department.

“Before [the course] I thought that aliens must have existed, but now I have the intelligence to back that up,” Meyer said.

Meyer mentioned how in astronomy news today there are constantly headlines about how the zone for potentially life-conducive planets has been expanding. Meyer believes the reason some people may not believe in alien life is because of the egocentrism we have on planet Earth.

When Meyer thinks about how the universe is infinite, it makes her feel small and at times it can be a scary feeling for her. However, Meyer is still interested in all things planetary, even if it does cause her to have some existentialist feelings.

Haurberg believes that extraterrestrial life exists in the universe. Last year, she gave a talk arguing the ability for life to emerge on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Haurberg stated that the existence of liquid methane on Titan is what convinced her about the possibility of life on the moon.

“I wouldn’t say that Titan is a likely place for life, as far as we define life on Earth, it’s kinda like a case study in making a planet that has different ingredients for life than what Earth has,”  Haurberg said. “There is also liquid water under the surface which is the number one thing we look for when looking for life beyond the earth. It is possible there is life in that liquid water.”

A lot of what informs Haurberg’s belief in extraterrestrial life comes from her knowledge of Earth’s formation and how Earth became habitable for human life.

“I would say that the reason I believe in extraterrestrial life is that the conditions for Earth’s formation and for Earth to end up the way it did–there is nothing to indicate that [the conditions] are unique or unusual,” Haurberg said.

Haurberg would argue that most astronomers believe life forms exist somewhere other than Earth in the universe. She does understand that not all astronomers may believe this and that there may be some variations in their belief. How much life and how complex the life forms are- whether they be humanoid or bacterial – all depends on each astronomer’s perspective on the definition of life outside of Earth.

“My belief is based sort of like my understanding of life but additionally, based on the absolutely incomprehensible number of  places that there are in the universe that can form life. How many other planets, other stars and other galaxies there are,’ Haurberg said. “It seems more absurd that we are the only ones.”

Zarah Khan, Co-Mosaic Editor

Tags:  astronomy extraterrestrial life science smc smc renovation

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