Observatory to return to UMD

  Rendering of the new observatory project atop MWAH. Photo curtesy Jay Austin

Rendering of the new observatory project atop MWAH.
Photo curtesy Jay Austin

Plans are currently underway to restore UMD’s previously dismantled observatory atop Marshall W. Alworth Hall (MWAH). These plans will cost an estimated $350,000 and will include a high powered telescope, retractable dome and adjacent control room. These new features will allow the UMD astronomy department to analyze images and collect data at a more convenient rate.

Dr. Jay Austin, department head of physics and astronomy, said that UMD is currently looking for external funding and stated that this project will not affect student tuition in any way.

“What we’re trying to do now is reestablish an observatory on the roof of [MWAH],” Austin said. “I think we can be serving undergraduates better.”

According to Austin, UMD has 400 to 500 students a year that enroll in the introductory to astronomy courses. Austin said most students never actually get the experience of looking through a telescope and this new observatory will change that.

Austin said MWAH was originally built with the intention of possessing a rooftop observatory.

  Jay Austin and Glenn Langhorst in front of the observatory in Moose Lake before it was dismantled and brought back to UMD for storage. Photo curtesy of Jay Austin.

Jay Austin and Glenn Langhorst in front of the observatory in Moose Lake before it was dismantled and brought back to UMD for storage.
Photo curtesy of Jay Austin.

Glenn Langhorst, former planetarium director, said that the returning observatory was dismantled in 1980 due to weather-related problems. Langhorst also said that there were issues with the observatory’s original telescope.

Current planetarium director Joel Halverson said one of the greatest challenges of the old dome was the telescope.

“Part of the demise may have been because this thing was a bit of a lemon,” Halverson said.

“It was difficult to get good images with [the telescope],” Langhorst said. “That's why [the observatory] saw less and less use, and that was part of the reason for the decision to remove the observatory.”

Langhorst has safeguarded the dome on his family property in Moose Lake, Minnesota, since the domes removal in 1980, to present day. Langhorst said the dome had great sentimental value.

“I remember when I was going to UMD as a freshman back in the ‘70s,” Langhorst said. “I had the opportunity to go up in the dome and experience viewing the sky. It was a life changing event for me and contributed to me becoming the director of the planetarium.”

According to Austin, the new observatory and telescope could serve both the campus community and public. Austin said the current observational astronomy students observe stars via telescope from one of the professor’s backyards.

“I want to have our own facility that we can use for those sorts of classes,” Austin said. “Dramatically improving the undergraduate astronomy is his main motivation for the dome project.”

Austin said he thinks the dome is going to have a really positive impact on this particular corner of the student experience.

“For a very large number of students it’s going to enrich the course they take,” Austin said.

  The dome being dismantled for transport in Moose Lake, Minnesota. AW Kuettle was contracted to do the work. The dome will be stored at UMD until construction on the new observatory begins. Photo curtesy of Jay Austin.

The dome being dismantled for transport in Moose Lake, Minnesota. AW Kuettle was contracted to do the work. The dome will be stored at UMD until construction on the new observatory begins. Photo curtesy of Jay Austin.

Langhorst said he thinks the new observatory will be a great thing for students, especially for those who have never had the opportunity to be in an observatory or look through a telescope.

“When we look at an observatory it’s not just another building,” Langhorst said. “When we look at what happens there, people, no matter what age, no matter what background, have that observing experience. They have the opportunity to connect to the universe.”

According to Langhorst, this is the first step in returning the dome back to UMD.

Langhorst said the big step now is to complete the project by finishing construction atop Marshall Alworth Hall so the dome can be placed.

NewsZack Benz