October 1, 2007

Fuertes Observatory Brings Stars Within Cornell’s Reach

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Situated high on the hill behind Helen Newman is a white-domed building that is the Fuertes Observatory. While many pass the observatory en-route to the gorges, not all stop by to see the beauty of the night skies.
Owned and operated by the university, Fuertes has a 12-inch refractory telescope that can bring into view elements from other galaxies to the furthest of the planets.
“I was amazed at how closely I could look at the moon. I was able to actually see all those craters that you usually only see in textbooks,” said Heather Edward ’11, after peering into the telescope for the first time.
However, the visibility of the different elements changes seasonally. Because not all planets and stars can be viewed at all times of the year, the Astronomical Society keeps an updated schedule of which elements can be seen each week.
Every Friday night, the Astronomical Society holds free public viewings that are preceded by a lecture series. The lectures are given by society members on a different topic every week.
“We are always looking for an excuse to go up there,” said Kim-Yen T. Nguyen ’10, president of the Astronomical Society.
The Astronomical Society independently operates and organizes most of the activities that take place in the Observatory. as
“There really isn’t any one person who runs the Observatory,” Nguyen explained.
According to Nguyen, the Astronomical Society will open Fuertes on other clear weeknights as well to allow families and students to frequent the Observatory on a more regular basis.
The turnout each Friday tends to depend on the weather and the nightly feature. A line out the door generally indicates a unique feature, such as a meteor shower or the appearance of the “gas giant” Jupiter.
At times, the society will hold special showings at the Observatory in the event of something extraordinary, such as a lunar or solar eclipse, which are major highlights of the astronomical year.
Currently, the society is in the process of bringing an independent filmmaker to the Observatory, whose recent movie about science and art would be screened in collaboration with Cornell Cinema.
The Fuertes Observatory is a long-standing resident of the University but was not always on North Campus. Fuertes has traveled across campus since its erection in the 1870s. The large dome on the north end of Goldwin Smith Hall was the initial site of the Observatory. Its construction was initiated by Cornell’s first Civil Engineering professor, Estevan A. Fuertes.
Since its original location, the Observatory has migrated from where the Dairy Building currently stands to Day Hall and also to Barton Hall, eventually finding its home on North Campus along with the University’s incoming freshman.
“I’ve only been to the Observatory once, but looking at the stars really helped me de-stress before my prelim. I definitely would want to go up there again,” said Saraya Mcpherson ’11.
The Observatory currently includes a mini-museum with artifacts and objects from its past days, giving a glimpse of Cornell’s astronomy and engineering history. No longer used for research, the Observatory has preserved its past by retaining the use of an automatic telescope, as opposed to a computerized one. Cornellians continue to visit the Observatory, both to learn and appreciate the stars.