Knox College’s new observatory, a 16.5-foot-diameter steel dome on top of the Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center, will provide stargazers with better-than-ever views of Galesburg’s nighttime skies. As home to the College’s new 17-inch Planewave Astrograph telescope—mounted on a vibration-free pedestal—the structure will offer students enhanced opportunities to learn about astronomy.
Construction began in August 2020 on the observatory, which replaces a smaller “personal observatory dome” at the Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center. Funds for the project came from a variety of sources, including contributions from Knox alumni, faculty, trustees, and friends of the College. When complete, it will also feature multiple smaller telescopes that students can mount on multiple piers to view the moon, planets, and other astronomical objects.
Professor and Chair of Physics Thomas Moses says it will “revolutionize how we can use the facility in our classes.”
Associate Professor of Physics Nathalie Haurberg, who teaches The Search for Extraterrestrial Life, Observational Astronomy, and other courses, agrees.
“Our new observatory will be more accessible and can fit a larger number of students in the dome during meetings, meaning more students will get a chance to experience looking through the eyepiece of a telescope,” added Haurberg, who does research on the formation and evolution of galaxies beyond the Milky Way.
“I think this is exciting because it presents so many opportunities for student engagement at many different levels,” she said. “I'm excited about bringing more astronomy to Knox in all ways. Astronomy is what I love.”
Philip Griffin '20, a post-baccalaureate fellow who is assisting with the observatory, called it “an important and exciting development for Knox and Knox students especially because this will open the skies up for student projects much more than previously.”
He means that literally. The new dome opens more widely than its predecessor, and the larger opening allows room for the telescope to point straight up—enabling students to take photographs and measurements of a vaster portion of the sky.
Knox faculty members expect to use the observatory in teaching astronomy at every level, from introductory courses for non-science majors to advanced courses such as Stellar Astrophysics (Physics 316) and Extragalactic Astrophysics (Physics 317).
The observatory also paves the way for more innovative student research opportunities at Knox. Students can develop projects as undergraduates and continue working on them in graduate school, Haurberg said.
“In Physics 245 (Observational Astronomy), students will be trained in using the observatory for observational astronomy projects and it will be the primary lab space used in all student projects for that class,” she said. “The skills students learn operating the observatory could even be taken directly into the job market for those interested in looking for work in observatories and telescope operations.”
In addition to serving as an academic resource for Knox students and faculty, the observatory is expected to become a resource for Galesburg-area schoolchildren and members of the general public.
“We are committed to supporting a robust public outreach with the facility. We expect to host regular visits from local schools and to host public observatory nights and viewing sessions for special events like eclipses,” Moses said.
Haurberg said that while the ongoing pandemic may delay plans for in-person public events at the observatory, some virtual events will be scheduled.
Sarah Henderson '20, who is assisting with outreach and social media for the observatory as a post-baccalaureate fellow, said, “What really excites me is that we now have the chance to make astronomy in Galesburg a bit more inclusive.”
“I’m hopeful that people who have never had the chance to view the skies with professional equipment will feel welcome in the observatory, even if they never set foot in a Knox physics classroom,” Henderson said.
Keep up to date with developments at the observatory through its social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram.
(Photo at the top of the page: The new Knox College observatory on the roof of the Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center. Photos below: Workers construct the observatory.)