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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Look to the Stars… If You Can

You’d think it would be hard to miss the giant dome protruding from the top of Healey Library, but many people at UMass Boston don’t know there’s an observatory on campus. It’s actually not too surprising that it goes unnoticed and unheard of, because the Arthur Martin Observatory has been closed and out of service for a number of years, unused by students or faculty.

Blame outdated technology, the expense of maintenance and limited funding. Over a decade old, the observatory bares the marks of its age with a warped lens and dented dome. Those repairs might not be too overwhelming were it not for the outdated mechanics of the actual equipment; the observatory has old-fashioned chain mechanisms to control its movement, while standard modern observatories use computerized operations. Perhaps most discouraging of all is the fact the UMB hasn’t even been able to get an estimate on the cost of repairs and updates, since the manufacturing company charges about $8,000 just to come out and look at the equipment.

Physics Department Chair Bala Sundaram hasn’t given up on the observatory and is hopeful that it can be resurrected and put back to use. He recalled that the observatory used to host open observation nights to engage students as well as reach out to the wider community. He envisions updating the equipment so that the observatory can once again serve as a resource for students and community groups. “The vision that we have is to have the whole thing computerized so that the telescope itself can be moved and the dome itself can be opened and closed using computer controls,” he explained. “We’d want to put a modern camera at the back of the telescope so you can actually take pictures that you can then download to your computer.”

With computerized machinery, students could control the equipment remotely without even having to be on campus. “If another school wanted to have an observing night, they could logon through the web and control the location of the telescope and point it at whatever they want to look at, take pictures and download them,” Sundaram said. He also noted that a working observatory would benefit UMass astronomy classes; “Currently we don’t have any direct access; the observational part of it is not there. So we could teach about these things and then students could actually look at some of them using the telescope. Right now we’re using pictures from the Hubble telescope, but there’s no pure association between an object that’s out there and what you’re looking at. I think that’s something you could make much more concrete if you had the facility. It’s a very good teaching aid.”

While the technology to realize these goals does exist, the sticking point is the cost; repairs and updates could cost up to $100,000, depending on the condition of the telescope. Sundaram is currently talking with the NASA-funded Massachusetts Base Ground Consortium to discuss possibilities for funding partnerships and recommendations. The Consortium, which includes members from the Museum of Science, Tuffs University and MIT, works to promote student outreach and interest in space physics and exploration, and may be interested in expanding the UMB observatory facility to include different types of telescopes and capabilities. However, Sundaram stressed that they are still in preliminary stages, and it is too early to determine any timeframe.