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The St. Thomas Observatory, used for seeing light from space objects light-years away from Earth and located on the top floor of the Anderson Parking Ramp, is now open to the public for tours and lectures.
Assistant Professor of Physics Gerry Ruch said the tours are offered because education is the most integral part of this telescope.
“(The observatory) is all about education: integration into our curriculum, doing research, the education side of research and the outreach,” Ruch said.
Sophomore physics major Jake Ukkelberg said the public education from an observatory is in line with St. Thomas’ mission.
“St. Thomas is all about a broader understanding of the world and the universe around us,” Ukkelberg said, “and a basic understanding of it will probably be big in the future.”
The physics department opened the observatory’s doors fall semester 2009, and has been integrating the physics curriculum since 2010 fall semester. Each Astronomy 104 student has an opportunity to move the telescope and collect data.
Sophomore physics and mathematics major Sarah Millholland established the three-year-old observatory’s research foundation. She spent the summer creating a model for analyzing planets outside our solar system.
“It was just a good way to broaden my experience by learning how to work in a research setting and trying to figure it out for yourself for a little bit,” Millholland said.
The St. Thomas Observatory can see outer space light with its 17-inch primary mirror under the dome. Unique to St. Thomas, the PlaneWave CDK17 telescope is completely automated. It can work long hours into the night without anyone being present when it is given a plan. This allows outside schools to use the observatory because they don’t need to make the trip to St. Thomas to collect data.
St. Thomas received a national grant this year to implement a curriculum for other schools to use the telescope. Assistant professor of physics Elizabeth Wehner said she is excited to get the outreach branch of the observatory off the ground.
“It’s very surreal up there,” Wehner said. “It’s a neat environment and we just want people to experience that, both St. Thomas people and students as well as the broader community.”
Millholland said after her summer of research, she sees the benefits in sharing the experience of the St. Thomas Observatory.
“People don’t realize how huge our universe is,” Millholland said. “It’s really cool to be able to introduce them to what professional astronomers do.”
Laura Landvik can be reached at email@example.com.