October 19, 2017
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Local stargazing: SSU opens new observatory

  • The new observatory features a slide-off pitched roof. Photo courtesy of Sonoma State University

By: Katherine Minkiewicz, Katelyn Quinn
September 29, 2017
Free viewing nights for general public


Both Sonoma State students and Rohnert Park residents will now have the chance to catch a glimpse of the inky black night sky and celestial objects such as the rings of Saturn and meteor showers after Sonoma State University reopened its observatory after a much-needed facelift, hosting its first public viewing last Friday night.

The 41-year-old observatory was built in 1976 for astronomy students and locals and has also been home to the American Association of University Women’s Tech Trek, a program for girls interested in studying math and science according to an SSU press release.

The observatory will continue to host those in the program, locals and students, however, the small building needed a new roof and updated facilities to house newer viewing technology.

Astronomy Professor Thomas Targett, who studies galaxy evolution and observational astronomy, said the need for a new building arose from standard wear and tear and an old cumbersome to open roof that needed updating.

“The old observatory was a fine building, but after 40 years it had become too expensive to maintain, at the time it was built by faculty and volunteers, so this is definitely a much better purpose built structure. We want to honor the memory of the old structure, but we are glad to have the new one,” Targett said.

Formerly, the small 12-by-24 wooden structure “looked more like a garden shed than an observatory,” according to the same press release provided by Nicolas Grizzle of SSU news and media relations. The observatory had only two sliding roof panels, which had to be opened by hand and could fit only a few people in the building at a time.

 Now, the observatory is equipped with an easy open electronic roof and can accommodate more viewers, a plus Targett says, since the astronomy department gets upwards of around 200 attendees a week.

Targett said of the facilities, “What we have at the new observatory is a motorized roof, which is a phenomenal advantage compared to the elbow grease that was required to operate it before, which makes it much more accessible. We also have multiple points of access now, so we have a much better flow through with foot traffic and we’ve upgraded the computer systems inside allowing us to do more on-sight graphical processing, image analysis and demonstrations for our visitors.”

With the new observatory, viewers will be able to observe our neighboring planets in the solar system, as well as nearby galaxies such as Andromeda.

“One of the main attractions are the planets, for each one you can do something unique, with Jupiter you can not only see the planet’s red spot, but you can also see the four largest moons, you can never see that with the naked eye. We can also see nebula, or star births and star deaths,” Targett explained.     

Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki was present at the grand opening ribbon cutting on September 8, which opened at 8 p.m., however, the first free viewing night open to the public kicked off last Friday, where guests got to view Saturn, the Milky Way Galaxy and star clusters as well as a short presentation from Professor Targett. 

“You’ll be able to observe not only the North Star out here, but a variety of stars,” said Targett. “We want to truly make it an experience for anyone interested in astronomy.”

“That star is how our sun will be in five billion years,” said one attendee after viewing the dying star station. 

The Saturn and Star Clusters night was the very first viewing night at the observatory, not including its opening night. Over a hundred students showed up.

They served hot cocoa and cookies to the people in line. People also lined up to have their photos taken with the background of stars. And people didn’t have to wait for a presentation within the observatory. Professor Targett walked out to talk with the line about star clusters and pointed a light up to the sky to help people observe the clusters and constellations that were visible there. 

At each viewing station, people had the chance to learn more about star clusters and planets as well and served as an introduction for anyone curious about space and astronomy.

In addition to local use on viewing nights, Sonoma State classes such as Introduction to Astronomy, Introduction to Astronomy Laboratory, as well as the intermediate class will be learning to use the telescopes, according to Targett.

The next step for Targett and the astronomy department is to work to get funding for new telescopes. “We hope to gather funds eventually to replace the equipment,” Targett said.

The university is also working to establish another new observatory in Mendocino at the 3,670 acres called Galbreath Wildlands Preserve. According to the SSU School of Science and Technology website, “The observatory will be used for advanced research in astronomy and astrophysics, undergraduate instruction and technology outreach at the K-12 level.”  

When asked what the benefits are for having an observatory on campus, Targett said that it helps connect students and the community with the night sky.

“Everyone is kind of naturally interested in astronomy. It is one of the great benefits of working in this field is that everyone is curious about the night sky, but to many people it can also seem very esoteric and very distant and having an observatory on campus allows you to really connect you with the night sky in a way that you just can’t by yourself... It brings all of that wonder back home,” Targett exclaimed.