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Keep your eyes on the stars at the Morehead Observatory's guest nights

2022-09-16 Lam,university-laser-projection-morehead-2.jpg

Morehead Planetarium & Science Center sits on Franklin Street on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2022.

Visitors can dive deep into the big questions of the universe during guest nights at the Morehead Observatory, observatory director Dan Reichart said.

How did it all begin? How is it going to end? What is the human place in all of this? 

The observatory’s weekly guest nights explore questions like these in a fun way, Reichart said. 

The guest nights are hosted by the UNC Department of Physics and Astronomy almost every Friday when UNC classes are in session. They are free and open to the public in the observatory at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. 

“It’s a nice evening,” Reichart said. “When I’m teaching classes and advertise it to students, I tell them it’s a great date night.” 

Mae Dubay, a graduate student and one of the guest night hosts, said she spends around two hours providing hands-on learning and interesting insights into the night sky during the sessions. 

At the beginning of the evening, guests are shown how the robotic Morehead telescope works. After that, Dubay said visitors have the opportunity to view the moon, planets, star clusters, nebulae and even some other galaxies through the telescope’s eyepiece.

“The last thing we do is we go out onto the roof of Morehead and we do a tour of the constellations in the night sky,” Dubay said.

Dubay said the experience of looking through a telescope and being able to take a peek into the universe with your own eyes is something that can’t be replaced by looking at images online.

Reed Fu, a junior and one of the hosts of the guest nights, noted the historic and educational impact of having the Morehead telescope available on campus. 

Fu said the telescope’s donor, John Motley Morehead III, was discouraged from putting it in Chapel Hill due to light pollution and lack of clarity in the night sky but was adamant about having a readily accessible device to encourage scientific learning in students. 

“We’re bringing a research-grade telescope down to everyone with no admission fee whatsoever and showing people what is out there every night,” Fu said.

Fu said he hopes these sessions could inspire a new generation of scientists, astronomers and engineers. 

Reichart said telescope was built in 1974 and dedicated in 1975. It was operated manually until 2010. It was used to train astronomy students, but as the department has acquired other tools for observation, the telescope's functions have shifted.

“We've grown up, and so we’re a very research-active department, over the past two decades in particular," Reichart said. "And with all these real cutting-edge resources, our students now gravitate towards those — leaving the Morehead telescope more for public use like the guest night program.” 

Reichart said the telescope is now robotic, meaning a computer opens the dome and automates the telescope to receive information for researchers and students around the world.

The observatory houses the Skynet Robotic Telescope Network, one of the largest global networks of fully automated robotic telescopes in the world. 

UNC dedicated the first site in the network in Chile in 2004, and has since expanded to sites across the world. 

During guest night sessions, the observatory will connect to the site in Chile and allow guests to take observations from thousands of miles away using the robotic telescope. 

Even if skies are cloudy in Chapel Hill, Reichart said that community members can still view the spectacle of the night sky using automated Skynet observations from the Chile site. 

To learn more and register for the free sessions, visit the Morehead Observatory Guest Night website.

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“There’s lots to learn for everyone,” Dubay said. 

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com