Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Orchard Hill Observatory draws in stargazers

By Steffi Porter

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The Orchard Hill Observatory offers University of Massachusetts students an opportunity to view constellations, planets and stars on clear nights. Open Wednesday or Thursday nights at 8:30 p.m., the observatory is, according to its student directors, an underutilized resource.

Senior Tom MacRae and Junior Joe Lyons, co-directors of the Orchard Hill Observatory, which is the only optical observatory on campus, are encouraging students to take advantage of what they say is a unique resource that not many colleges offer. MacRae and Lyons have been directors of the observatory for two years now, and enjoy spending time up on the hill, gazing at stars and planets when the sky is clear.

“[The observatory] is one of UMass’s coolest hidden secrets,” said MacRae, who said any student interested in astronomy, or simply looking to stargaze can come for a clear view of the night sky through a 16-inch Cassegrain telescope.

The observatory is located on Orchard Hill and is accessible to all students. The ceiling, called ‘the dome’ rotates and opens up so that students can look through the telescope to see the night sky.

Last Tuesday, Nov. 8, approximately 40 students gathered in the observatory to peer through the telescope and get a glimpse of the night sky, many members of the Astronomy 100 class taught by visiting astronomy professor, Thomas Burbine.

“I want my students to look through a telescope and see the sky, see the moon,” said Burbine. “Part of the lab grade is to come up to the observatory at least once in the semester. It’s nice to have a telescope on campus that students can use.”

Gazing through the telescope, students can get a clear view of the moon and its craters, various star arrangements and sometimes planets. MacRae says the easiest planet to spot is Jupiter.

Caitlin Mcallister, a student in the Astronomy 100 class said “it’s pretty amazing that we actually have a telescope like this on campus.”

According to MacRae, not many students know about the observatory, something he believes is unfortunate. MacRae and Lyons say they spend a lot of time in the observatory, and consider it a second home, and that after putting time and effort into improving it, they hope students will utilize it even more than they already do.

“In my opinion this is one of the most beautiful places on campus, and it’s so cool to be able to look up in the sky and see a star or see a planet or see the moon,” MacRae said.

MacRae calls the telescopes “mini time machines,” saying “when you look at the sky, you’re looking into the past.” He also said the machine places physical objects in perspective. “Knowing you’re actually part of a star makes you realize you’re not so small,” he said.

According to MacRae and Lyons, this year has had the biggest turnout of visitors yet. However, the pair is trying to encourage more professors to take their classes to the observatory.

“We are trying to get [the observatory] open as much as we can. Once or twice a week,” said Lyons, who said they get anywhere from 30 to 60 people at the observatory on a good night.

MacRae and Lyons acquired the observatory after befriending the former director, who passed it along to them after graduating and trained them for three months. The training involved finding simple things like the moon and Jupiter and learning how to talk to people at the observatory, how to handle emergency situations, how to use the telescope and work the dome.

“It’s been underutilized,” said MacRae. “Sometimes they open it up and no one comes. I’ve been the co-director for just under two years now, and it amazes me how few students come up to the observatory. I’ll be graduating soon and want to share this place and what I love with everybody I can.”

Senior Alexa McKenzie was enjoying her first time at the observatory.

“It’s pretty cool. I looked at Jupiter and saw the moons. It was really, really cool. I’m going to try and come up here on clear nights,” she said.
MacRae said he was happy with the turnout, and that the observatory has no specific closing time. Often it stays open until the last student is done stargazing.

Steffi Porter can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “Orchard Hill Observatory draws in stargazers”

  1. Anne Deggendorf on May 8th, 2012 6:30 am

    Is this only open to students?
    We love to stargaze and have to telescope here in Northampton.

    This would be a great opportunity on clear nights.
    Anne

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