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Stargazer's Delight

Public astronomical observing sessions are open to all
The Shattuck Observatory
The Shattuck Observatory hosts twice-weekly astronomical observing sessions during academic terms. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)
Robert Fesen
Robert Fesen

Twice a week, stargazers gather at Shattuck Observatory to observe the skies through the Department of Physics and Astronomy's public astronomical observing program, which offers public access to some of Dartmouth's telescopes. The sessions are held during academic terms on Friday nights from 7 to 9 p.m., for observing the moon, planets, stars, and neighboring galaxies, and on Sunday afternoons from noon to 2 p.m., for daytime solar viewing of sunspots and prominences.

Robert Fesen, professor of physics and astronomy, administers the public observing program. "It is a way for both Dartmouth students and Upper Valley residents to take a free tour of the skies and heavenly objects guided by a physics and astronomy graduate student," he says.

Aaron Dotter, a graduate student studying stellar evolution, has been involved with the program since 2002. "It's as though I'm tour guide to the cosmos," he explains. "I know what is visible when, and where to point the telescope to see craters on the moon, planets, star clusters, and galaxies.

The observing sessions are regularly attended by Dartmouth students and community members, and special astronomical events can draw crowds. Dotter recalls that, "In 2003, people lined up at Shattuck Observatory for public viewing sessions of Mars in its closest approach to Earth in recorded history."

Judy Filkins, math and science coordinator for Lebanon elementary and middle schools, recently accompanied a group of middle school students and parents to the observatory for a special nighttime observing session. "Aaron does a wonderful job presenting the historical information about Shattuck Observatory and the science we see when looking through the telescopes," she says. "It was an incredibly cold night, but everyone had a great time and none of the students wanted to leave."

Built in 1854, Shattuck Observatory sits on a hill behind the Wilder physics building and is the oldest scientific building on campus. Most often, the astronomical observing sessions use an 8-inch reflector telescope in a small building near the observatory. On occasion, however, the sessions are held inside Shattuck Observatory, which houses a 134-year-old, 9.5-inch refractor telescope.

"Up until the last half century, astronomers used refractor telescopes, which use a glass lens to gather and focus light," explains Dotter. "With advances in technology, reflector telescopes were developed to collect and focus light using a mirror. The reflecting telescope next to the Shattuck Observatory is just as strong as the large telescope inside the observatory, but much smaller and easier to use."

For research purposes, Dartmouth also owns a share of the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere, the 11-meter Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), as well as the MDM Observatory, consisting of 1.4- and 2.3-meter telescopes, on Kitt Peak in Arizona.

Parking for the Shattuck Observatory is located on Observatory Road, off East Wheelock Street. Visit for a schedule and directions. Current information and directions are also available by calling the astronomical observing information line at 646-9100.


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Last Updated: 12/17/08