Cordell-Lorenz Observatory Offers Students a Close Look at the Stars

Joseph Harned

Staff Writer

“There is a Sewanee up there in the asteroid belt,” Dr. Douglas Durig, professor of chemistry and physics and director of Cordell-Lorenz Observatory, said after turning off the overhead lights in the main room of the observatory. The Sewanee asteroid is one of many discovered from the University Observatory, where astronomers and students alike can take in views of the University’s sweeping skies. 

At the top of Carnegie Hall, through a narrow set of stairs and illuminated by constellation-esque string lights, lies the heart of the Cordell-Lorenz Observatory. The University Observatory was established in 1913 and has since been a prominent part of the astronomy and physics curricula. In addition to class use, the observatory is open (weather permitting) to all students on Thursdays from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m.

Dr. Durig shared some of the upcoming celestial events that students could see using the observatory telescopes. Dr. Durig said, “We have Saturn just past opposition, so we have been looking at Saturn every chance we get. It’s always like, ‘Oh my goodness, it really has rings, you can really see them.’ We also have a surprise comet in the early morning sky. It could be visible using binoculars or even the naked eye. It might break up and give us a spectacular tail.” 

In regards to what visitors should expect, Dr. Durig said, “It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to get totally dark adjusted, but on a good clear night, without any moon in the sky, we can see the Milky Way right in the center of campus. We’re gonna be looking at Saturn tonight, and at the end of the night I think we will get a glimpse of Jupiter.” In addition to these, the moon is often up early enough in the night to be magnified by the telescopes. 

When asked why he loves looking at the stars, Dr. Durig replied, “It’s my hobby; my Ph.D. is in chemistry. I’ve always been interested in it since I was a little kid, so it’s a chance to teach other people the joy of astronomy that I have. I’ve got, like, 50 chemistry publications, but I’ve got well over a thousand astronomy publications.”

Dr. Durig said that one of the biggest things that draws him to astronomy is the “interesting chance of discovery. I mean, we’ve discovered almost one hundred asteroids from up here in Sewanee. It was a student in one of my classes, doing a class activity, who discovered the Sewanee asteroid.”

For special astrological events, the Observatory has a calendar of public programs scheduled each semester. If the Observatory piques an interest in the solar system within students, Dr. Durig recommends Physics 250 – “Solar System Astronomy.” “You’ll get exposure to using telescopes, taking pictures, and doing cool stuff. You take the whole semester just on the solar system.”

The blanket of stars that covers Sewanee’s sky can be examined stitch by stitch at the Cordell-Lorenz Observatory. Every Thursday, the rooftop of Carnegie Hall will become an opportunity to look into outer space, from close-up views of the moon to far-off stars and distant nebulae.

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