March 27, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 37°F


Stargazers gather at observatory

Last Friday, members of the Ithaca College community hoping to visit the Clinton B. Ford Observatory on a public viewing night were disappointed as a thunderstorm rolled in and eliminated all chance of seeing the stars.

Dan Briotta, professor of physics at Ithaca College, said the possibility of interferences like this was expected.

“If you’re going to be an astronomer in Ithaca, you have to be philosophical about the weather — or else move to Arizona,” he said.

The Clinton B. Ford Observatory, built in 1998, was funded by a National Science Foundation Grant and named after a former trustee of the college. Ford had been an amateur astronomer and asked that his gift go toward the study of astronomy at the college. Briotta proposed that an observatory be built and designed the building.

Public nights have been held since the observatory was first built and are typically held a few Fridays each semester, usually from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. Last Friday’s public night would have been the second of the semester. The last public night for this semester is scheduled for Dec. 14. Briotta said between 100 and 150 people attend most open nights, but on nights with special astronomical events, such as when Mars is close to Earth, as many as 400 people attend.

Aside from hosting public nights, the observatory is used for undergraduate projects and tracking asteroids and rotations of stars.

“Much of the work on [research projects] is being done by undergraduate students [from the college],” Briotta said. “That’s part of the justification for the observatory.”

Luke Keller, professor of physics at the college, said he was impressed to first hear about the observatory before coming to Ithaca five years ago. He brought students from his Advanced Optics course to do maintenance on the telescope for a hands-on experience.

“In that sense, it’s like having a really nice chemistry lab or other science lab, but it’s an astronomy lab,” Keller said.

Nirbhik Chitrakar, a senior physics major who volunteered at an observatory public night in 2004, said viewing stars and planets through the telescope was completely different from what he had expected.

“The pictures that you see in photos and stuff … the color has been tweaked to give you a better picture, but when you actually see it, it’s a totally different experience,” he said. “It’s crazy to think that we’re on Earth here and we’re watching some heavenly object. It gives you an idea of how big they are and how far they are.”

Briotta said children especially enjoy touring the observatory and recalled a past Halloween in which children went to a public night after trick-or-treating at Emerson Hall.

“Kids love this stuff … it’s not something you outgrow,” he said.

Keller said scheduling open houses was a challenge, partly because of the possibility of weather canceling the event. Organizers of public nights must also plan for transportation to the observatory because the road up to the observatory is unlit, which allows the telescope to operate properly.

“It would be nice eventually to have open houses even once a week, so they would be a regular event people could count on unless the weather was bad,” Keller said.

Bruce Thompson, professor of physics, said while the weather often interfered with the public nights, Ithaca is still a good place to have an observatory.

“Most places around the country have so much light pollution now that it’s very difficult to see the night sky,” he said. “Here in Ithaca, we have the advantage of being in a location which has a dark sky. So hopefully, [Ithaca College] students will take advantage of that view and participate at least once while they’re here.”