The “East Road Observatory” is back up and running, unveiled for the first time at an opening ceremony on Oct. 24. This achievement is the work of a small, but fiercely dedicated team, from the physics department, spearheaded by Assistant Professor in Residence Matthew Guthrie, who partnered with local telescope maker Allen Hall to make their dreams a reality.
For the past 14 years, the structure sat vacant in disrepair on UConn’s Plant Science Farm, going relatively unnoticed by university and department officials. The final 2009 entry in the station’s logbook was tragically resolute, reading, “Dome stuck, mount frozen,” alum Dennis Perlot recalled.
Despite the site’s modern obscurity and abandonment, the observatory has deep roots tracing back to prominent change-makers in the University of Connecticut’s history.
“All that I know has been given to me by second hand sources,” Guthrie noted, who emphasized the mysterious nature of the building.
According to an article published by UConn Today, many of those who saw the structure were unaware that it was, in fact, a nucleus for astronomical studies.
Dr. Cynthia Peterson, who joined the physics department in 1968 as its first female member, conceived of the observatory over 50 years ago. With the help of machinist Richard Mindek, the station was completed in the late 1970s.
“She was the first and only woman physics professor at UConn for 35 years. She inspired countless members of the community, and she had a deep passion particularly for astronomy that affected everyone fortunate enough to share time and space with her,” Guthrie said.
Although the observatory is a mere footnote in the legacy of Dr. Peterson, the restoration team has used their respect for her memory as a guiding motivation.
“Cynthia Peterson was an incredible woman in STEM, and we need to recognize and celebrate the women pioneers in our field whenever and wherever we can,” Guthrie expressed , “I want to use the observatory as an opportunity to honor her memory and achievements at UConn.”
Beginning in January of this year, Guthrie and Hall’s work to repair and update the dilapidated dome has produced a result with impressive capabilities. The telescope itself is a vintage testament to the planetarium’s original incarnation, manufactured by Massachusetts based company Group 128 in the mid-seventies.
The 16-inch scope’s specialty is “narrow-field objects: comets, planets, galaxies and deep-sky objects like nebulas and star clusters,” as Guthrie puts it.
Looking to the future, plans for conducting research at the facility are a star-gazer’s dream, with the studying of exoplanets and supernovas on the horizon. Through the observatory’s automated discovery searches, the planetarium may even house new findings that do not yet appear in cataloged research.
Due to the observatory’s isolated location on the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources’s research farm, the site is not yet ready to accommodate large groups. Improvements to accessibility, however, are among the team’s many goals, which include plans for the planetarium like a “moon garden” with night-blooming flowers and the establishment of a classroom to expand the facility’s teaching potential.
Guthrie expressed his enthusiasm for the project and palpable love for astronomy.
“I can’t wait to get everyone out there in time!” Guthrie said.