Tour: Discovering the Wonders of the UNH Astronomical Observatory

by Kelly Bryer
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On September 7, a group of 28 Granite State Ambassadors (GSAs) visited the University of New Hampshire (UNH) campus in Durham to explore and learn about the UNH Astronomical Observatory. Recently, UNH Cooperative Extension has joined the Physics and Astronomy Department to help the UNH Observatory reach even more NH residents and visitors and to help expand the Observatory’s programs. 

This place is truly a gem, offering regular monthly viewing sessions, special programs, family-friendly events, and gatherings for the public to enjoy. With its impressive collection of astronomy equipment, including two domes with high light-gathering telescopes, a new digital telescope, and various portable telescopes, the observatory is a haven for astronomy enthusiasts.

Our host for the day was Director of the UNH Observatory, John Gianforte. His passion for astronomy was infectious, and he shared his vast knowledge with unmatched enthusiasm. John took the time to explain the observatory’s programs, both for the campus community and the general public. The best part? No registration is required for the free public viewing sessions, and people of all ages and levels of astronomy knowledge are welcome to join in the fun.

The Observatory is managed by a Physics graduate or undergraduate student, and it relies on the support of volunteers, including current and former UNH students (both Physics and non-Physics) and local amateur astronomers.

During our visit, John emphasized the importance of light gathering power in telescopes, rather than just the magnification factor. He explained that the more light a telescope can gather, the better we can observe faint objects like nebulae and galaxies. Magnification is great for seeing details, but without sufficient light gathering power, we might miss out on the awe-inspiring sights of the cosmos. The observatory’s website provides detailed information on this topic and more.

John also shared the fascinating story of how the telescopes and domes found their way to the observatory and how they are utilized for educational purposes by the UNH Physics department. In addition to the public viewing sessions, students in astronomy-related courses are brought to the observatory to enhance their learning experience. They even have to write laboratory reports about the objects they observe, giving them a hands-on approach to their studies.

As the sun set and the sky darkened, John answered our barrage of questions with genuine enthusiasm. Once it was dark enough, he introduced us to the digital telescope, which didn’t have a viewfinder. Instead, he used his smartphone to direct it towards celestial objects, and we were able to see the results on a screen. It was truly mind-blowing to witness the wonders of space through this innovative technology. You can click on the below images to see a larger version. 

During our time at the observatory, we were treated to breathtaking views of Saturn, the dumbbell nebula, and even a recent supernova near the pinwheel galaxy. The digital telescope even allowed John to capture photos using a smartphone app, which he shared with us. It was like having a front-row seat to the wonders of the universe.

As we bid farewell to John and the observatory, we were each given a special parting gift. A meteorite fragment from Africa, photos from previous sessions, and a pair of certified eclipse sunglasses. These mementos serve as a reminder of our unforgettable experience and the knowledge we gained.

In the weeks following our tour, our GSA volunteers couldn’t contain their excitement and shared their newfound knowledge with guests, sparking engaging conversations. Some were so inspired that they even made trips to their local libraries to explore beginner astronomy books.

The UNH Astronomical Observatory is truly a place where curiosity meets discovery. Whether you’re a seasoned astronomer or just starting your journey into the cosmos, this hidden gem is waiting to amaze and inspire you.