BU Observatory Not Just for the Starry-Eyed

Stationed on the roof of the College of Arts and Sciences building at 725 Commonwealth Avenue, the Judson B. Coit Observatory is where BU’s undergraduate astronomy students begin training in their field. Astronomy majors are very familiar with the observatory; it’s where they go for labs for their astronomy classes, and for many of them, where they first learned how to use telescopes and gather basic data. But for one night each week, the observatory is also open to the public.

“We’ve gotten tourists from all over the world at our observatory,” says Brian Healy (CAS ’17), President of the BU Astronomical Society, which runs the observatory’s Public Open Nights each week, “I’ve talked to people on holiday from Germany and other places in Europe who come here wanting to see the night sky. It’s gotten a really nice reputation in the area.”

Students can reserve tickets online for these Public Open Nights, which are held each Wednesday throughout the year, weather permitting. On these evenings, visitors have the opportunity to look through some of the observatory’s eight-inch telescopes. Each of these telescopes are usually directed at different objects in the sky. The planets and the moon can be seen in the Boston sky, and sometimes, even deep space objects such as the Orion Nebula.

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Observatory in the snow.

Healy’s interests in astronomy originated from his own visit to the observatory on a Public Open Night as a first year student.

“Looking at some of the brightest objects in the sky, like Jupiter or the moon, that really started what has turned into a career path for me,” says Healy. “I think that people from all walks of life and all areas of study should experience that wonder that has motivated a lot of people in the field to commit their whole lives to it.”

Tickets to these events sell out fairly quickly. But BU students can get special access to the observatory by joining the BU Astronomical Society, where they can receive training on the telescopes and regularly go up to the observatory as part of the club’s weekly activities. In the past, students in the club have captured images of the Comet Catalina, the M57 “Ring Nebula,” and other star clusters and galaxies that can be accessed on their website.

But if going up to the observatory isn’t enough for students interested in studying the stars, the BU astronomy department also offers courses for non-science majors. Most of those classes have nighttime laboratories in the observatory, usually twice a semester, which give non-science majors an opportunity to look at the night sky with someone guiding them and pointing out celestial objects. 

And while the observatory on campus is a great tool for getting students — science majors and non-science majors alike — interested in astronomy, it is not actually used for research, as a light-polluted city like Boston is not the ideal location for gathering data. Student and faculty researchers tend to travel to distant locations to gather data for their work, or go to the remote observing room on the fourth floor of the CAS building where they can connect with and control telescopes around the world. They have used telescopes in Hawaii, Arizona, and other locations in this way. 

There are many reasons for engaging in astronomy, even for non-science majors, says Astronomy professor and department chair Tereasa Brainerd. 

“At its heart, astronomy asks: what is the universe, and where did the universe come from? What is the role of the stars and our planet for humanity?” she says. These are questions that are of interest to other disciplines as well. On a practical level, other scientific disciplines, such as medicine, benefit from the development of laser technology that astronomers employ in their work. Arts and humanities students might value astronomy as another way of perceiving humanity’s role in the universe and answering some of the most basic questions that humans have been asking for centuries.

According to Professor Brainerd, many of these “basic” mysteries of the universe are still largely unsolved. For instance, scientists still don’t know what makes up the vast majority of the matter and energy in the universe.

“And those are pretty fundamental concepts. It’s the entire universe, the biggest scale you can think of,” says Brainerd. She adds: “On a smaller scale, however, I think what’s really happened that’s exciting in the last twenty years is discovering the fact that there are a lot of planets around other stars in the universe.”

Astronomers are now characterizing new planets and evaluating which of them might be earthlike. Earlier this year, astronomers discovered seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a star about 40 light years away. This has led scientists to speculate whether these planets could have water on their surfaces and potentially support life. As similar discoveries are being made, scientists have begun to piece together a better understanding of the universe. Still, there’s much about the universe that is yet to be discovered.

In the meantime, for curious students who wish to catch a glimpse of far off stars and galaxies and to be a small part of the rapid advancements occurring in astronomy right now, the BU observatory is a great place to start.

Featured photo from bu.edu.

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