Observatory Affords Views of Galaxies Millions of Light Years Away

Students, faculty, staff and their families were treated to spectacular views of the moon, Jupiter and far-off galaxies during a nighttime viewing session in Marsteller Observatory atop Pfahler Hall on April 5.

Megan Bolash 2014

Biology major Megan Bolash 2014 views the moon, which is seen in the distance.

Dr. Douglas Nagy, an Associate Professor of Physics who has taught at Ursinus for 35 years, estimates that 200 people attended the event, which was held in conjunction with his Introduction to Astronomy class (PHYS101Q).

In addition to the moon and Jupiter, participants were able to see:

  • The Orion Nebula, a cloud of gas and dust that glows due to ultraviolet light emitted by young stars embedded in it.
  • M64 (The Black Eye Galaxy), which is 17 million light years from Earth.
  • M3 (a globular cluster in the halo of our galaxy), which is 30,000 light years from Earth.
  • M51 (The Whirlpool Galaxy, a spiral galaxy), which is 23 million light years from Earth.

“I love the observatory sessions,” says Ayesha Contractor 2017, a French major who was among the students in the class who operated one of the telescopes. “I find it so cool that our school has access to such amazing telescopes to look into space.”

Those telescopes are 14-in. Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes, along with a CCD camera, which is “a high-sensitivity digital camera useful for taking images of remote astronomical objects,” says Nagy. “It is inserted into the back end of the telescope instead of an eyepiece.”

Operating the telescopes was fairly easy, says Devin Butchko 2014, a Mathematics major with a Business Finance minor who hadn’t experienced the observatory until she enrolled in Nagy’s class. “It was a really cool experience. Sometimes we all get so caught up in our own lives, it’s humbling to be reminded that we are one miniscule speck in the grand scheme of the universe.”

“I attended the observatory [session] because it was something I always wanted to do,” says Megan Bolash 2014. “I am fascinated by space. I am a science major, but stars, other galaxies, and other planets never cease to amaze me. I was able to view the moon, specifically its craters and canyons.”

Walter W. Marsteller 1949

Walter W. Marsteller 1949 in the original observatory.

According to College archives, the idea for an observatory was conceived in 1947 when student Walter W. Marsteller attended a meeting at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. The Institute offered to lend Ursinus a 10-in. refractor telescope built by Elihu Thomson if space for it could be provided at the College.

The administration accepted the offer and Marsteller, with help from other students and the Ursinus maintenance staff, built a dome made of scrap and war surplus material. Marsteller graduated in 1949 and later became an associate professor of physics at Ursinus. The observatory, which was dedicated to Marsteller’s memory in 1976, was replaced in 1998 as part of the renovation of Pfahler Hall.