Stargazers flock to reopened Jones Hall observatory for public opening

Lina Tran, Contributing Reporter

A chilly breeze came through the door of the Tulane Observatory last Wednesday night, Mar. 2. An eager crowd packed the room in hopes of catching a glimpse of Jupiter and its four moons.

Unused since 2014, the observatory on the roof of Joseph Merrick Jones Hall is now open to members of the campus’s newest club, Society of Tulane University Cosmic Observers, and the public on certain dates.

“It’s one thing to hear about Jupiter and see a picture of it and its bands,” sophomore STUCO co-founder Chase Schober said. “It’s such a difference when you see it yourself, and it makes everything more tangible and interesting.”

With nearly 100 attendants, the opening was almost too successful, according to physics professor emeritus Dan Purrington. Stargazers had only a brief moment to look through the telescope. Purrington, who taught physics and astronomy courses for 45 years, said he hopes smaller groups in future will allow people to observe a variety of objects.

Schober and fellow sophomore STUCO co-founder Matt Bamberger sparked the revival of the Tulane Observatory when they approached physics department chair Lev Kaplan last February, seeking a way to observe a rare celestial event: the alignment of five planets. Kaplan introduced them to Purrington, who oversaw the observatory in past years.

Since then, the two students have frequented the observatory and, with Purrington’s guidance, viewed a variety of astronomical bodies including the Moon, Saturn and Orion Nebula.

After several private sessions, Bamberger and Schober decided more students should be allowed access to the observatory. Purrington and Kaplan felt the time was right to try public sessions as well.

STUCO aims to bring space enthusiasts together for weekly observations. Ultimately, the group wants to demonstrate a need for astronomy classes.

“Maybe through [STUCO] we can revive … the astronomy program,” Bamberger said. “Right now, there are no astronomy classes or anything even offered on campus. Our goal is to show the support that is there, in the school and the community.”

Kaplan said the department hopes to resume astronomy courses. Last offered in 2014, these courses have since lacked a faculty member with the necessary expertise to teach them.

In past years, the physics department designed its astronomy courses for non-science majors. This will likely remain the case if they are reinstituted.

“Astronomy courses introduce students to a lot of physical concepts in a relatively painless, interesting way,” Purrington said. “It has an aesthetic dimension to it, and the hard physics is hidden in there a little bit.”

Constructed in 2001, the Jones Hall observatory replaced the Cunningham Observatory, which housed astronomy classes from 1940 to 2001, when it was demolished during an expansion of the A.B. Freeman School of Business. It was located close to what is now Goldring/Woldenberg Hall II.

The observatory now has a computer-controlled, 16-inch telescope, an upgraded version of the Cunningham telescope. Computerized focusing makes navigating the sky in a light polluted urban setting easier and faster.

“[Dr. Purrington] types in ‘Jupiter,’ and then it orients itself to go to Jupiter,” Schober said. The telescope makes a low whirring sound as it repositions itself.

Future public viewings will be scheduled as clear skies and astronomical events permit. What one can see depends on the season, Purrington said. Upcoming events include the first-quarter Moon, excellent views of Saturn and Mercury’s transit across the face of the Sun.

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