Ten Years Under the Stars

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Duke Teaching Observatory was established in the fall of 2002 with funds from Provost of Arts and Sciences and the Physics Department. The Observatory is located in a clearing in the Duke Forest about 4.5 miles from West Campus. The observatory is an important part of the student experience in Physics 55 (Introductory Astronomy). Students visit the observatory three times each over the course of the semester, allowing small group work in which 3-4 students operate a telescope. Over the course of the term, students progress from simple observation tasks to independent design and implementation of more advanced observations. The observational component is frequently cited by students as their favorite part of the class and an important component in their learning.

The observatory is also used for science outreach activities. The observatory is open to the general public for regularly scheduled Open House events, usually on Friday or Saturday evenings or set to coincide with astronomical events of interest such as eclipses or meteor showers. At the Open Houses 1-3 telescopes are set up and aimed at the most striking objects visible. While visitors view these in turn, Prof. Ronen Plesser conducts a discussion of the astrophysics of the objects being viewed. In response to questions, this often ranges to topics from Big Bang cosmology to Greek Mythology.  Open House typically lasts about 2 hours. In addition to these public events, various groups schedule visits to the observatory.  These include class trips by local schools and campus groups which are conducted much the same way as Open House, except that teachers bringing their students out are encouraged to take part in selecting targets and in the associated discussions. On occasion, the telescopes are even transported to other locations for outreach events. In the fall, one telescope is used by Physics 217 (Advanced Undergraduate Lab) students to measure the rotation of the Sun, an experiment designed by Dr. Bill Ebenstein, who has also done wonders over the years in maintaining the sensitive devices through this tough regimen of use as well as devising helpful improvements. We have plans to expand the scope of the program at the observatory to include astrophotography and wheelchair access to the telescopes. To hear more about these ideas contact Ronen Plesser. Upcoming open houses are usually announced here in the e-newsletter, the Duke Events calendar, on the observatory web page and on the Duke Physics‚ Facebook page. So stay tuned and we hope to see you under the stars! See past news about the observatory "The Science of Stargazing" here.