San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

December 10th, 2015
Texas State students, researchers survey the stars at Supple observatory

COVER: The Texas State Observatory lies on campus on the fourth floor of the Supple Science building and is generally open Wednesday nights from 8-10 p.m. for free star gazing. PHOTO by DARYL ONTIVEROS/THE UNIVERSITY STAR


Texas State students don’t have to travel light-years away to see the stars.

Instead, they can make the voyage to the fourth floor of the Supple Science Building, which conveniently houses an observatory on campus.

Russell Doescher, faculty director of the observatory, said the Texas State Observatory opens its doors to the public every Wednesday night from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Doescher said students and members of the community are invited to stargaze through the observatory’s 16-inch diameter telescope, or they can walk along the observation deck, where several smaller telescopes can be used to view the night sky.

Doescher said the science department was originally offered a choice between a planetarium and an observatory on campus.

“I liked the idea of having a real telescope gathering real light from real stars to go to real people,” Doescher said. “So, that’s why we chose the observatory.”

Although the observatory was already built into the Supple Science Building, Doescher said it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the telescopes arrived on campus.

“We had to wait for the telescope to be able to build all the infrastructure underneath,” Doescher said. “So, 1994 is when we started that project and six months later, we had the telescope installed.”

Doescher said the infrastructure has remained sturdy for the past 20 years, but technology in the telescopes does have to be replaced from time to time. He said the most recent replacement occurred about four years ago.

Doescher said the observatory has always been open for public viewing, but the building’s Wednesday night tradition did not begin until around 1996 after his former assistant suggested they set a day.

“My assistants are the ones that actually run the big telescope,” Doescher said. “They learn more that way and they are going to, next semester, actually start doing research with the telescope.”

Tyler Long and John Wallgren, physics seniors, said they have been assistants at the observatory since the beginning of the fall semester.

Wallgren said he plans to conduct research on photometry with the large telescope next spring, where they will measure the light coming from stars and watch the changes in brightness.

“They’re measuring stars that change brightness depending on what time of year it is,” Long said. “They try to figure out why.”

Wallgren said the pair is excited to take over the research.

“Tyler and I operate the telescope, basically,” Wallgren said. “So, we’re up there in the dome showing people cool stuff out in space.”

Wallgren said the observatory welcomes nearly 30 visitors on a typical Wednesday night.

“It’s really cool to see people’s reactions whenever you show them Saturn or Jupiter,” Long said. “It’s relaxing, even if it’s super cloudy.”

Astronomy students have labs in the observatory on Mondays and Thursdays, and special events also take place at the center throughout the week.

Doescher recalled an elementary school field trip in which all the students dressed in lab coats, took notes and recorded data.

“I had a great time,” Doescher said. “Nobody has to pay me to do that. I love that.”

Doescher said the main purpose of the observatory is serving the public by showing and teaching them about the sky.

“It’s sharing the sky with people,” Doescher said. “That’s what I love to do.”

Doescher said McDonald Observatory in West Texas is popular among individuals, but visitors don’t get as much hands-on or exclusive experience as they would at the Supple Science Observatory.

“I would rather (people) look through a telescope for ten minutes, then tell their remembrances of the event and how it meant something to them,” Doescher said. “That’s valuable. That’s something that’s worth a visit.”

Doescher said having an observatory on campus that students can easily access and learn from is pivotal.

“Here, it’s your visitation that matters the most to us,” Doescher said. “The second thing we could do is some research.”

STACEE COLLINS reports for The University Star, the student newspaper of Texas State University, where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the University Star and the San Marcos Mercury.

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