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Duke observatory offers open houses, hands-on access to the stars

Posted September 10, 2015
Updated September 11, 2015

A semi-circle rises out of a field in Duke Forest of Cornwallis Road. What looks like a bit like a small Stonehenge from the air is actually an observatory. The term “observatory” might bring to mind a rotating dome atop a building with a long, protruding telescope, but this one was designed with a different purpose in mind.

Duke University's Teaching Observatory was created on this site in 2002 by the physics department to provide hands-on experience for students in astronomy classes. Faculty also use the site as a platform for astronomy outreach to Durham and Wake County public schools and members of the general public.

Duke Observatory aerial

“The easiest way to get people excited about science is to show them stars,” says physics professor Ronen Plesser.

The observatory consists of nine piers equipped with outlets to power electronics as well as the heaters that keep telescope optics free from the dew that develops as temperatures change through the evening. Each pier was cast in a concrete cylinder extending underground to provide a steady base to mount the university’s five research-grade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes. This equipment helps fulfill the primary mission of the site by enabling multiple students to observe at once.

Duke Observatory

The Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope design combines the benefits of refracting (gathering light by passing it through lenses) and reflecting (gathering light by reflecting it with mirrors) telescopes into a compact package. Like refracting telescopes, light enters through a lens (Duke’s telescopes have a generous 10” wide aperture). Like reflecting telescopes, light is then gathered by mirrors and reflected to an eyepiece. Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes are popular with researchers and astrophotographers because they fold that light path inside the tube, reducing the length of the tube and making the telescopes more portable.

Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope

Amateur astronomers visiting the Duke Observatory are also encouraged to bring their own equipment. Extra piers, with their own power outlets, are available. Even seasoned amateur astronomers are surprised at the improved performance of their telescopes when placed on a very stable, properly aligned mount.

The Duke Observatory hosts open house events every other Friday throughout the fall, weather permitting, from Sept. 11 through early December. Clouds are expected to decrease starting early Friday morning leading to partly cloudy skies and a slight chance of showers for the first open house of the season at 9 p.m.

Print out the directions on the website before going, the observatory can be a challenge to find. Also try entering the latitude and longitude of 36.015, -79.003 into your GPS.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.


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  • Tony Rice Sep 11, 2015
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    Vera, the Duke Teaching Observatory page on the physics department's website (http://www.phy.duke.edu/duke-teaching-observatory) includes directions. I've had challenges finding the location as well though. Try putting the coordinates mentioned in the article into your GPS.

  • Vera McGraw Sep 10, 2015
    user avatar

    I REALLY want to go to this.....I have tried at least 5 times to find it on Cornwallis....never successful....are there some landmarks that would help???