The university’s observatory not only observed nebulae in the sky but also its birthday at an open house Thursday.

Dedicated in November 1964, this month marked the 50th anniversary of the university’s observatory.

To commemorate the observatory’s 50 years, former department head John Trasco held an information session at the building. During the lecture, he discussed the history of the observatory, including its opening, first open houses and monumental moments he witnessed, such as Halley’s Comet in 1986.

“Fifty years ago, space astronomy didn’t exist,” Trasco said. “Computers and technology definitely weren’t like they are today at our facility.”

Elizabeth Warner, the observatory’s faculty coordinator, has worked at the observatory since 2002. She said some changes have been made since then, such as upgrading the equipment students use, the addition of lights in the parking lot and DLS Internet access. 

Known primarily as a teaching and outreach facility, the observatory is also open to the public on the 5th and 20th of every month, during which  students and the local community are invited to hear a lecture and look through one of the telescopes.  

Sophomore electrical engineering major Haoitan Wang came to the open house to further his interest in astronomy. 

“I just got accepted to the astronomy minor, so I thought coming here would help me learn more information,” Wang said. “The fact that stars are really far away is magical. When they collapse or explode, it actually means that it happened hundreds of years ago, and that’s really cool to me.”

More than 2,500 visitors attend the free open houses each year, according to the astronomy department.

“As a graduate student, open houses are a great way to share with the public what we do with our day-to-day lives,” graduate student Drew Hoggs said. “It gives a sense of perspective — seeing how small we are and how big the universe is.”

One of the biggest achievements in the past 50 years is having former students become great scientists, Warner said.

These students include R. Brent Tully, who found glass film plates that he had taken of M51, a group of galaxies, and Brett Morris, who has observed exoplanets. 

Looking ahead, the observatory is planning to make more updates.

“We are working on implementing [the asteroid occultation system] that we acquired with student tech fees and need to get our new server and some new camera control computers,” Warner said. “With funds donated, I hope to get an all-sky camera, weather station and some other sky monitoring gear.” 

The university offers four courses at the observatory, one of which is the College Park Scholars Science, Discovery, and the Universe program. In this program, university sophomores work with local high school students on telescopic observing projects.

The other courses at the observatory are ASTR100: Introduction to Astronomy, ASTR310: Optical Astronomy Techniques and ENAE441: Space Navigation and Guidance (ENAE441).

“The best part about working here is sharing the night sky, talking about the objects we observe with students and the public,” Warner said.