Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Observatory Guest Nights at Montgomery College

Sorry if this post rambles a bit! As we gear up for a more regular schedule of guest nights, I wanted to give a little history and perspective about how we got here.

When I was hired by Montgomery College the summer of 2009, construction of the new Science Center on the Rockville campus had just begun. It looked like this:

Photo credit to Montgomery College
During my interview I was told there would be a new observatory (in addition to the two telescopes on top of Macklin Tower!). The observatory was one of the main reasons I decided to join the college.

By June of 2010, the new observatory was taking shape:

Observatory June 2010

And by August 2010, we had walls and a roof:

Observatory August 2010, view from Macklin Tower

It wasn't until October of the following year that we were ready to install the scopes. In the photo below, the Astropiers are just sitting on the ground and I'm testing the data connections. The scopes were mounted on the piers shortly after.

Observatory October 2011

The first observatory public nights I hosted were at the Macklin Tower observatory before construction was complete on the roof of the Science Center. We ran these events in a true open house style. That is, we would open for a couple of hours and guests would come any time during that two hour period. We kept to a regular schedule of first and third Fridays of the month, weather permitting. Once the new observatory was ready for guests, we took the same approach.

Happily, the public nights were a success. We had a good showing of guests from the college and local community. We were so successful in fact, that we were in danger of exceeding the fire marshal occupancy limit!

What to do?

I decided to try out the paradigm used by the UNC Chapel Hill Observatory. (I was a graduate student at UNC and telescope operator for the guest nights during my time there.) The dome at UNC can accommodate only a limited number of people, so the event was reservation based. It used to be that guests would have to call the physics department to reserve a space. The event would be rain or shine. If the weather prohibited viewing, we would give a talk and simply show the telescope.

So here we are. 

I've run a grand total of two guest nights using the reservation paradigm, similar to what we did at UNC. With the support of the Physics & Engineering Department and college administration (thanks!), as well as the dedication of the MC Stargazers club (major thanks!), we're going to give this method a go on a regular schedule.

Were going back to first and third Fridays, as long as the college is open.

As we transition to this new approach, I'd like to thank you for your patience and understanding. We're working to make the observatory nights a fun, educational, and engaging experience for everyone. Suggestions are welcome. All of us involved in putting together these events do so on a volunteer basis. (Myself included- I'm a full-time faculty member and any observatory work is in addition to my duties as an associate professor.) It's definitely a labor of love. There are few things I enjoy more than sharing what I know about the universe.

The new schedule is posted on the Event Schedule page. You can make reservations via EventBrite here. My contact information is here. Please feel free to let me know how we can make the observatory nights better, as well as letting me know the things you really like about the events!

Looking forward to seeing you at the observatory.