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IU observatories play role in public education, astronomy history

Oct 4, 2023

Across the state, Indiana University campuses are home to many astronomy experts, as well as multiple facilities where the public can observe the skies. Several of these observatories also boast eventful histories, playing a role in important discoveries related to the orbit of asteroids in our solar system, the observation of binary star systems and the recovery of “lost” asteroids in the aftermath of World War II.

As Indiana prepares for the partial eclipse of the sun Oct. 14 —as well as the greater spectacle of the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024 — these observatories will play a key part in providing public information and viewing access for these phenomena.

Kirkwood Observatory

IU’s oldest observatory, the Kirkwood Observatory sits on the western edge of Dunn’s Woods on the IU Bloomington campus, a stone’s throw from the Sample Gates.

A bicyclist passes near a large observatory building in a wooded area The Kirkwood Observatory is open to the public Wednesday evenings until Thanksgiving. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University

Built in 1901, the facility features a 12-inch refracting telescope and a solar telescope whose optics deliver a real-time view of the sun, including solar flares and prominences. The observatory is named after Daniel Kirkwood, an IU Bloomington professor of mathematics who was most well-known for his work on asteroid orbits. He also lends his name to Kirkwood Avenue, as well as a crater on the far side of the moon.

The observatory was designed to study binary star systems, the research specialty of professor John Miller, who was the observatory’s first director. Today, it’s primarily used for public education and outreach, said Caty Pilachowski, professor and chair of the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Astronomy. The observatory is open to the public each Wednesday evening from the week after spring break until Thanksgiving, weather permitting.

“We see guests of all ages at Kirkwood, and when the weather is good, these events are very popular,” said Sarah Popp, a Ph.D. student and outreach coordinator in the Department of Astronomy. “We get a lot of feedback from the community who say they really appreciate being able to visit, plus we often host private tours for educational groups, or go out to speak at events or visit classes.”

Another IU Ph.D. astronomy student who serves as IU Bloomington’s eclipse liaison, Kristin Baker, said observatories play a key role in fostering the next generation’s passion for the stars.

A young girl squints her eye to look through a large telescope Lucy Wrasse of Bloomington peers at the moon through the Kirkwood Hall telescope during IU Science Fest in 2016. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

“An integral part of my childhood and passion for astronomy were my trips to a local planetarium and observatory with my family,” she said. “Being exposed to the wonders of the universe at a young age really informed my career path, so I want to give the same opportunity to kids now, especially underrepresented groups that may have limited access to science.”

The Kirkwood Observatory is also not the campus’s first. IU’s first observatory consisted of two buildings, completed by 1895 and 1899, on the western edge of Dunn Meadow. The buildings were later moved to the area of Woodburn Hall in 1910 or 1911 and dismantled in 1928. The current observatory also received a major renovation in 2001.

For the partial solar eclipse on Oct. 14, the Kirkwood Observatory will be open to the public from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., weather permitting, and offer a livestream. The free event will feature information, sidewalk telescopes with solar filters for safely viewing the partial eclipse, and craft tables, including an eclipse art activity and a session on building a pinhole camera for viewing the eclipse. Tours of the observatory will also be offered. No registration is required.

IU Kokomo Observatory

The IU Kokomo Observatory sits on the south side of the Kokomo campus near the Student Activities and Event Center.

A large observatory dome shines in the morning lights at sunrise The IU Kokomo Observatory hosts monthly open houses during the academic year. Photo by Mike Glassburn, IU Kokomo

The facility, which opened in 1985, was made possible through private donations, including a gift from the family of Rick Steldt, a retired member of the physics faculty. The 2,208-square-foot building is faced with natural uncut limestone from Monroe County.

Before the observatory’s construction, IU Kokomo astronomy faculty mostly conducted astronomical observations from out the windows or on the roof of the East Building.

“It seems to me that observational astronomy was happening on campus come hell or high water at the time,” joked Patrick Motl, professor of physics and director of the IU Kokomo Observatory. Motl, who joined the faculty in 2008, had previous experience working in public outreach at the Highland Road Park Observatory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The IU Kokomo Observatory has three telescopes. The largest has a 16-inch mirror, which is used to observe fainter astronomical objects because it collects the most light and produces the greatest useful magnification. The second telescope has a 6-inch lens that can cancel out “chromatic aberration”; it provides clear views of objects in the Earth’s solar system, including Saturn and Jupiter. The third is a hydrogen alpha solar telescope, which can be used to safely view the sun. The observatory also has projection equipment, and a lecture hall that seats about 100 people.

A young boy leans forward with hands on hips to examine a large telescope as other children look on The IU Kokomo Observatory is a popular destination for local school groups. Photo courtesy the IU Kokomo Observatory

During the academic year, the observatory offers monthly open houses. Motl said his first major public event was the transit of Venus in 2012, during which the planet was clearly visible against the sun. Other past popular events include lunar eclipses and opposition of Mars, which occurs about every two years, during which the planet is the most visible in the night sky.

Due to its popularity with school groups, Motl said, the observatory provides young people one of their first chances to experience the campus environment. To encourage return visits, the observatory recently launched a “Universe Explorer Badge.” Children who visit the observatory once get a “diffraction grating,” a small lens that splits light into a rainbow. Students who return five times get a perpetual star chart, and 10 visits earns a free “starter telescope.”

On Oct. 14, the IU Kokomo Observatory will be open to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for observation of the partial solar eclipse, weather permitting. It will also offer a livestream on the IU Kokomo YouTube channel. The event is free of charge, and no registration is required.

Goethe Link Observatory

Located about 30 miles northwest of the IU Bloomington campus, the Goethe Link Observatory is nestled in the forest near the edge of Bradford Woods in Morgan County. Built by 1939, the observatory boasts a unique history.

A large white observatory dome and building Tours of the Link Observatory are available upon request. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

The observatory began as the passion project of a successful Indianapolis-based surgeon and amateur astronomer, Dr. Goethe Link, who constructed the facility in conjunction with the Indiana Astronomical Society, an amateur astronomy organization of which he was a member, to promote astronomy in Indiana. (Dr. Link was also a pioneering aeronaut who won the National Balloon Race in 1909.)

The observatory features a 5,000-pound, 36-inch telescope that rests upon a 30-foot, 200-ton concrete “pier” seated on bedrock. At the time of its construction, there were only eight other observatories in the U.S. with telescopes of equal or greater size. The 34-ton, 34-foot-diameter dome is also made of wood; it is the nation’s largest wooden observatory dome.

Link donated the observatory to IU in 1948. A year later, he funded construction of an ancillary building north of the main observatory with a 10-inch astrograph, a telescope designed for astral photography. This facility then played a pivotal role in the IU Asteroid Program from 1949 to 1966, which was created to track asteroids whose orbits were “lost” during World War II due to the worldwide interruption of regular astronomical observations.

By 1958, the IU Asteroid Program had produced 3,500 photographic plates with 12,000 asteroid images; by 1966, it had discovered 119 asteroids and many new minor planets. The program was once regarded as one the world’s leading programs for asteroid discovery; its nearly 7,000 photographic plates are now archived at Lowell Observatory in Arizona.

A large observatory telescope sits beneath a wooden dome The Link Observatory features a 5,000-pound, 36-inch telescope that rests upon a 30-foot, 200-ton concrete “pier” seated on bedrock. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

The Link Observatory ceased operation for scientific research and training by the late 1980s. Currently, IU co-operates the site with the Indiana Astronomical Society. The ancillary building is now referred to as Tanager Hill Observatory, and it contains a smaller, more modern telescope that is used even more regularly than the larger telescope in the main building.

“IAS maintains the observatory in conjunction with the university in terms of maintenance and upkeep,” said Robert Aull, president of the Indiana Astronomical Society. “In terms of programming, IAS holds regular observing sessions for its members, and public observing following our monthly meetings, which are open to the public.”

A schedule of Indiana Astronomical Society events is available on its website. Public tours are also available upon request by emailing link-observatory@iasindy.org. Due to parking limitations, the society is not planning an event for the partial eclipse on Oct. 14.

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