Campus Observatory to receive overdue renovation

The Observatory at Sonoma State University that has seen more than four decades of operation and instruction in astronomy will soon undergo the process of being renovated.

“The old facility had a flat roof design, which led to standing water that led to degradation over time. The new facility will have a domed roof structure. This will make a more effective protection from the environment,” said assistant professor Thomas Targett.

The Observatory is located at the most south east corner of the campus by the running track.

“Demolition of the old facility will begin in early March. The new facility will be smaller but I believe we will be able to do far more,” said Targett.  “Although the completion of the observatory will happen this semester, setting up the various [hardware] including the telescope will delay the opening until next semester. The telescope will remain the same for now.”

Sonoma State President Judy K. Sakaki is set to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday, Sept. 8 in the coming fall semester. Students and faculty are encouraged to attend the event that will also include a viewing.

“[The observatory has a] 14 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. The telescope gathers the light, [and] the bigger the mirror, the more light you can gather, but you’re still limited by what your eye can process,” said alumnus Ryan McDaniel. “It enables you to get magnification and gather light so your eye can see.”

“It’s been a phenomenal facility that’s given us so much over the years. We get about 750 students, members of the public and families per semester. It’s seen a lot of traffic through the years,” Targett said.

Public Viewing Nights are a longstanding tradition at Sonoma State and are offered four times during the semester.

“When students arrive, we take a photo [of them] with the aperture left open for three seconds. You can see yourself with the sky and all the stars. Then you move into the structure. All public viewing nights have three telescopes. You’ll see things up close, then middle distance, and then far away. We always have cocoa and cookies,” said Targett.

The viewing nights use student docents from the physics and astronomy departments to assist in manning the telescopes and talking with those in attendance.

“It also gets used as part of our curriculum. The observatory is used in the introductory, intermediate and advanced astronomy laboratory. Its integrated into our astronomy program,” said Targett.

“We have a long history of astronomy [at Sonoma State]. Anyone interested in the night sky and nurtures a passion for science [is welcome],” said Scott Severson, associate professor of physics and astronomy.

“If you want to have the opportunity to really have some observational astronomy on campus, Sonoma State is one of the better places to do it,” said student Henry Arbaugh. “You can learn in a class about practical astronomy, but it’s a different thing to come out and see what goes into finding those things out.”

The observatory offers three tiers of learning in Astronomy. Public Viewing nights, classes and student research projects.

 “The greatest thing that an observatory can bring is so much of what’s esoteric, especially astronomy. When you’re confronted with the vastness of the universe. An observatory is a way that can connect to you in a very meaningful way with the heavens and what you can see in the sky,” said Targett.

Targett explained that with the use of the telescopes, viewers can see the rings around Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, craters on the Moon and even the features of Mars.

“Even the basic knowledge of astronomy can give people a perspective on our world, that one wouldn’t otherwise have. It teaches you to look into deep time and put yourself not just where your eyes are in the present. It allows you to see into the future and the past.,” Arbaugh said.

The Physics and Astronomy Dept. takes care of most of the physical maintenance of the observatory and each Public Viewing Nights has a different theme. 

The next viewing will be March 3 from 7 p.m. - 9 p.m. and include the Winter Circle.

Call ahead at (707) 664- 2267 to confirm the viewing during incliment weather. For more information on Public Viewing Nights visit Dept. of Physics and Astronomy website at http://www.phys-astro.sonoma.edu/publicviewingnight.