September 21, 2015

Dozens Partake in Observatory Stargazing Event

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Dozens of current students and alumni ventured to the Fuertes Observatory for a stargazing event on Friday night as part of Homecoming Weekend, compelled by what they said was a general sense of curiosity for the night sky.

The visitors used telescopes provided by the Cornell Astronomical Society, while CAS members pointed out sharp green laser-pointers to indicate various celestial formations in the cloudless sky.

“I love [the observatory] so much. I just keep coming back,” said Shianne Beer ’08, a former CAS president who was visiting the observatory. Beer said she initially returned to campus to see the fireworks alone, but found herself back at the observatory.

Coming from a childhood where he spent a lot of time with his dad and a telescope, current CAS president Sam Newman-Stonebraker ’17 said that a love of astronomy caused him to wander up the hill from his Mews Hall freshman dormitory and spend the night at Fuertes for the first time.

“It has its own unique feel,” Newman-Stonebraker said.

According to Newman-Stonebraker, a significant part of the crowd on public observation nights are not actually Cornellians. Of those that were present, very few formally study astronomy. Many said they attended to fulfill a more casual curiosity.

“I’m not an expert, I just like looking at them,” said Sharon-Rose Alonzo ’19, citing a sense of awe and wonder. “It’s like looking at the sunset.”

The Fuertes Observatory has stood on its present ground just north of Beebe Lake since 1917, according to a brief history of the observatory written by Prof. Phillip David Nicholson, astronomy. Cornell Astronomical Society, which hosted the homecoming weekend observation, has been running public observation nights at Fuertes for 40 years, according to CAS members.

Though the observatory is no longer the center for scientific research, it now serves as a tucked-away refuge for Friday night stargazing. Housed inside is a refractor telescope with a pair of 12-inch objective lenses. A few smaller reflector telescopes are mounted on the deck outside of the main telescope’s dome housing.

The observatory’s instruments were once used “to accurately determine time and location using the stars,” according to Newman-Stonebraker.

“The official time of the University was once likely kept using a specialized clock kept at the Observatory, and the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey reference marker for the exact location of Cornell’s campus is found at the northwest corner of the building,” he said.

Despite recent renovations and fresh coats of paint, the building has preserved an endearing mustiness that guests immediately encounter upon entering, according to Newman-Stonebraker.

“I’m glad that Cornell provides things like this for free,” Alonzo said.

Though she has been a student at Cornell for only a few weeks, Alonzo said she felt a sense of belonging at the observatory, even though she did not know anyone there previously.

For many, including Beer, the observatory has provided a home during their time at Cornell. Beer said she spent many late-nights talking with her friends at Fuertes when she was an undergrad.

“Cornell in general is my home, but this place in particular is the focal point,” Beer said. “It’s just such a special place.”

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