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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Observatory Provides Views of Night Sky

Standeford Observatory is open to the public every Thursday.

Nate Gotlieb, Mankato Free Press, 10-26-2014

Curtis Hexum peered into the telescope and focused it on a blurry cluster of stars thousands of light years from earth.

“Take a look at this one,” Hexum, an observing assistant at Minnesota State University, Mankato’s Standeford Observatory, said to a pair of students. “This one’s completely different than a galaxy.”

One of the students looked into the telescope. She guessed the object was M27, the dumbbell nebula, a cloud of gas that emits light of various colors.

Nope, Hexum said. She was looking at M15, a globular cluster of stars estimated to be 12 billion years old.

“This has hundreds of thousands of stars in it,” he said. “That’s what gives it its blurriness.”

On Monday through Thursday nights in the fall, undergraduate-student assistants such as Hexum guide observatory visitors on tours through the night sky. Students trickle in and out, writing down their observations for extra credit in their astronomy courses. On Thursdays the public is invited to come.

The viewing sessions are part of an effort by the university’s department of physics and astronomy to reach students and the public and to potentially engage the next generation of scientists.

“I think astronomy is one of the subjects which can attract people’s eye on science,” said Ka-Wah Wong,an adjunct instructor of physics who teaches observational astronomy at the university. “We want people to understand our discoveries. ... Also we want people to have correct understanding of our universe by studying astronomy.”

Wong said the observatory gets about 1,000 visitors each fall and somewhere in the hundreds each spring. He said about 20 non-student visitors come each Thursday night, though he added that students will often bring visitors when they come on other nights.

The assistants use a host of telescopes mounted onto rolling platforms to show visitors the night sky. They also utilize the observatory’s 14” computerized telescope, housed inside a three-meter Observa-DOME.

The observatory came out of the work of Leo Standeford, a professor of astronomy at the university who died in 1981. Standeford acquired the Observa-DOME in 1978 and placed it on the roof of the Trafton Science Center. He subsequently moved it to south edge of the campus, however, because of the roof’s vibration. The observatory remained at that location until 2006, when the university relocated it to its current location about 400 yards further south.

The university also has the Andreas Observatory, which houses more advanced equipment. It does not host public-viewing sessions there, however, though it does have occasional open-house events.

Transferable skills

On observation nights, the assistants focus the telescopes on the different celestial objects in the sky. Every five minutes or so, they will re-adjust the telescopes to account for the rotation of the earth. Some assistants have bright-green laser pointers to help them show objects without the telescopes.

What they can show depends on the weather and the time of year. On a good night, they say they can see 500 stars, Wong said.

Wong said the students learn skills in the observational astronomy course that are transferable to different scientific fields, and that the hands-on experiences students get at the observatory are very important.

Hexum, a physics-education student, is one of those students who’s learned those skills, in part, through astronomy courses. He became an assistant after taking Astronomy 101 his freshman year and observational astronomy the next fall. He’s held the position ever since.

“It really gives me the ability to use these telescopes,” he said. “They don’t put a limit on how much I can use or when I can come down here, so during the summer, actually I come down here a lot and just do observations for fun.”

Hexum, like the other observatory assistants, appears to have an astute knowledge of astronomy. On a crisp, clear night last week, he guided students from telescope to telescope, pointing out stars and galaxies and giving them facts on each object.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at

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