More than 30 people turned their eyes to the sky Tuesday evening as residents and educators from the University of the Virgin Islands celebrated the opening of the recently refurbished Etelman Observatory and Science Center near Four Corners on St. Thomas.
Guests walked around with heads tilted back as they viewed the new dome, new telescope and refurbished home during the ceremony. Some even tested out the telescope, viewing stars and planets that shone brightly despite the mildly cloudy sky.
“This is a very exciting opportunity for the university to rededicate the house and make it available to the public, to let them know what the university is capable of,” said David Hall, UVI president.
The renovated observatory includes a new state-of-the-art, robotically-controlled telescope a half meter in diameter with a new computer system. The home was redesigned to accommodate the public, students and guests, complete with an observatory control room.
“You get students up here and they put their eye on (the telescope) and they kind of sit there for a second before they go ‘wow,’” said David Morris, associate professor of physics and director of the observatory.
“This is the sort of facility that big universities love. It’s manned by students who can do research that can be published in journals, and it’s so accessible. It’s a unique spot and a unique facility,” he added.
The observatory was refurbished after a 10-year project and several grants and monetary gifts. The original dome was ripped off during a hurricane, and the ancient telescope was also in need of replacement.
The original 15-inch telescope was "a great telescope for its time in 1961, but just outdated,” said UVI physics professor David Smith.
“It’s hard to make a telescope work down here,” said Morris. “The internet and everything is strong enough to control anywhere in the world, but the north side isn’t a kind climate for this. Maintenance is required.”
Stephen Evans-Freke of Celtic Therapeutics noted that there is no facility like this within 3,000 miles, including on the east coast. Because of its uniqueness, the facility has allowed UVI to host its first international astrophysics conference, and this fall, they are integrating the telescope into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s gamma ray project.
NASA’s space-grant office is visiting this fall to present a workshop on outreach activities.
“There’s nothing that gets people excited about science like looking at the universe through an eyepiece,” said Morris.
UVI is reaching out to high schools and bringing students to the observatory.
Hall emphasized the valuable resource the observatory presents to the community and he hoped that the territory’s youth would remain involved.
“We have to get our young more engaged in mathematics and science because they are key to any prospects in our future,” said Evans-Freke.
Morris said they had students come up in the spring, and they hope to schedule public viewings for the fall.
He said that the territory boasts a “smooth upper atmosphere because of the trade winds,” making it very efficient for viewing objects in the night sky such as stars, planets and other deep space objects.
“The size of the mirror dictates how much light you can gather, how deep you can see in sky,” said Smith. “There are very practical limits to magnification because of the atmosphere. We got a nice mirror for gathering light and very precise tracking.”
Harry Etelman gave the house and observatory to UVI in 1962. The project began in 2000 when UVI applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation to renovate the observatory. UVI was awarded the grant in 2002 and began the 10-year project of restoring the house and observatory.
Nine months ago, Morris started to meet business people in community, noting that they have “responded with so much enthusiasm and generosity.” Celtic Therapeutics provided UVI with a gift of $11,200 for the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics program, specifically to assist with the observatory.
“We’re extremely excited about the potential effect that will come of this – research for faculty, education for students, a magnet for public,” said Hall. “UVI cannot survive and thrive without the support of others. We saw the day where this facility would not just be a place for scientists, but a place for the Virgin Islands.”