GT Observatory lets students, public see stars

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Atlanta may outshine all but a star or two on most nights, but atop the Howey Physics Building both students and the general public may bring celestial bodies into focus with Tech’s first observatory.

Taking the elevator to the top floor of Howey, a flight of stairs to the roof and then a second shorter flight, the observatory is an enclosed space slightly smaller than an average classroom with a retractable roof.

Prior to construction, the platform the observatory now stands on hosted an old rusted crane; however, with funding from Northrop-Grumman the observatory was completed by April 2007, and Tech’s technology fee paid for the centerpiece of the space: a 16” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on a computer-controlled mount connected to a big-screen high-definition TV.

“Groups of at least 15 can reserve an evening [at the observatory] for free, including residence halls, sororities, fraternities or the fire marshals,” professor Dr. James Sowell, senior academic professional with the physics department and unofficial director of the observatory, said.

Groups are often much larger, attracting school field trips and Atlanta-area groups; in fact, the total combined space on the roof has been able to accommodate up to 556 people, as with the largest event two years ago during the alumni sponsored Family Weekend. Sowell also suggests using the observatory during a half-moon, but Oct. and April are usually the clearest and best times.

Public nights are monthly events at the observatory open to students and the general community, hosted by the Astronomy Club—headed by David Zimmerman, fourth-year CS, and sponsored by Dr. Sowell—hosts most of the events at the observatory such as public nights, where they sell snacks and drinks as well.

“There is one public night left this semester on April 22, where we’ll be looking at Saturn, the moon, the Orion Nebula and Mars. We will have a special two-hour radio show with WREK a couple of days before that. It’s going to have astronomy-related music, and we’re going to answer questions about astronomy,” said Nicole Cabrera, a ‘09 PHYS alumni currently working with the physics department.

Cabrera works on research with Dr. Sowell and works with the observatory, helping with public nights and other large groups.

The Astronomy Club primarily provides an opportunity for Tech students to share their interest in astronomy by forums, lectures and, of course, using the observatory; most members are not physics majors or take any astronomy classes offered by the department and Dr. Sowell, rather the majority and the club’s founders are aerospace majors.

The club also provides the same opportunities to the general public, hosting general talks about astronomy on campus and at local grade schools; most recently, they hosted a Montessori school field trip.

“We’ve been holding a merit badge clinic for the last year, teaching Boy Scouts about astronomy,” Zimmerman said, “We give them a basic background about planets, the sun, constellations, tips on using telescopes and careers in astronomy. It’s a group effort from all of us.”

Outreach programs and events extend even further than Atlanta. The software used in conjunction with the telescope allows what is viewed through the telescope to be broadcasted as far as Australia, where the club interacts with schools; recently, they shared live images with seven elementary schools in Texas simultaneously.

Sowell would like to expand its K-12 school outreach programs internationally and partner with international universities such as Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

He also plans to eventually hire more observatory assistants and decorate the staircase leading to the roof with planetary mobiles, astronomy-related posters and a black-and-white color scheme.

He teaches three astronomy courses: The Solar System, Stellar Astrophysics and Stars, Galaxies and the Universe. The Solar System (PHYS 2021) covers general concepts of our solar system and naked-eye observational phenomena.

Stellar Astrophysics and Stars (PHYS 3021) covers stellar interiors, structure, evolution and nucleosynthesis; Stars, Galaxies and the Universe (PHYS 2022) covers types and formation of stars, general relativity, formation of the universe and extraterrestrial life.

All classes require a visit to the observatory, and all together they comprise the core of the certificate in astrophysics offered by the physics department.

Aside from major events and astronomy club meetings, students and faculty working on astrophysical and astronomical research and several full-time astrophysicists at Tech’s Center for Relativistic Astrophysics also use the observatory’s facilities.

Tech’s telescope is not quite the largest in the area; Emory University owns a 24”, and Agnes Scott owns a 30”.

Barely shorter than the highest point on campus, the patio area is an adjacent open platform slightly smaller than the main observatory space, currently hosting a 12” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.

Sowell would like to eventually use the space as a dining or reception space for special occasions; until then, it is a prime sight-seeing point with locations are far as Lenox, Six Flags and Kennesaw Mountain in sight, as well as sunsets.

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