Dudley Observatory offering a much closer look

A grand opening ceremony will be held Friday night to showcase the new 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegranian telescope
Valerie Rapson, director of the Dudley Observatory, looks at a new telescope added to the facility earlier this month.
Valerie Rapson, director of the Dudley Observatory, looks at a new telescope added to the facility earlier this month.

When Valerie Rapson first looked through a friend’s telescope and saw Saturn, she figured somebody was playing a trick on her.

“I thought someone had put some kind of sticker at the end of the telescope,” said Rapson, director of the Dudley Observatory at miSci. “It was hard to believe that I was actually looking at a planet with rings around it. Just seeing Saturn for the first time amazed me, and it still does.”

Rapson and the public will have plenty of opportunities to view Saturn and other heavenly objects with the aid of a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegranian telescope now on the grounds at miSci. Beginning Friday night with a grand opening ceremony to showcase it’s new piece of equipment, the Dudley Observatory will once again be an actual public observatory with a telescope and not just a classroom or educational tool for astronomy lovers.

“It’s a fully computerized, top-of-the-line telescope, and the public will have regular hours when they can come and look at the night sky,” said Rapson, who began working at the observatory in 2015 shortly after it formed a partnership with miSci. “We’ll have a telescope operator at all of our regular hours, and we’ll able to type in on the computer whatever you want to look at. It’s a short process, 30 seconds or so, and we’ll be able to see whatever’s visible at the time.”

While the Dudley Observatory has been in existence since 1856, it hasn’t actually had a commercially powerful telescope available for the public to use in nearly 40 years. With the new telescope and its home – a small structure on the miSci grounds at Schenectady’s Nott Terrace Heights, the museum will improve its status as one of the top educational institutions in the state.

“We’re all about the past, the present and the future, and the science behind innovation, and what cooler thing is there than the exploration of space,” said miSci President Gina Gould. “With our Challenger Learning Center, the Suits-Bueche Planetarium and now our long-awaited telescope, kids will really get the sense that they’re in space or at least on the ground helping their colleagues get to the moon and Mars and beyond. This is a brilliant addition to miSci.”

The telescope and the construction of the small building it s housed in was made possible by nearly $100,000 in funding provided by a combination of public and private sources, including a $20,000 grant from the state secured by assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam.

“We are very appreciative of that support,” said Dudley Observatory Board President and RPI professor Heidi Jo Newberg, referring to the state grant. “Also, much of the support came from the board of the Dudley Observatory, past and present, and our friends and family. We also received contributions from those who have benefited from the Dudley Observatory and its programs. We are obviously very excited to once again have a permanent observatory available for public viewing.”

Jeff Curren, a Bolton Landing resident up on Lake George, is a member of the Adirondack Skywatchers and has a half dozen or so telescopes of his own. He said the Dudley Observatory’s new telescope is a great addition to what was already a wonderful facility.

“We came down there last year to the Dudley Observatory and used a portable telescope and we just had a great time,” said Curren. “I think it’s pretty neat that they’re getting a new telescope because there aren’t a lot of public observatories that you can go to. We go to Stellafane in Springfield, Vermont, there’s one at Moreau State Park and a new one [Adirondack Public Observatory] just opened up in Tupper Lake.”

The telescope at Moreau State Park is moved outside from the site’s Nature Center once a month for star-gazing parties, and another option for Capital Region residents is the Hirsch Observatory, built in 1942 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. Union College and the University at Albany also have observatories with limited public viewing, and Siena is in the process of building its own star-gazing facility.

Observatories come in all shapes and sizes, so if the small building outside the Museum of Science and Innovation in Schenectady is not exactly what you were thinking of, don’t be disappointed.

“It looks like a shed, but we don’t like to call it that,” said Rapson, laughing. “It’s a very expensive, fancy shed that’s going to give people an opportunity to look up at the stars and enjoy.”

For Newberg, an astrophysicist known for her research into the Milky Way galaxy, the Dudley Observatory’s new telescope may help produce more serious astronomers like herself, or at least those with more than just a passing interest in what’s in the sky above us.

“Looking up at the sky has for me always afforded a unique perspective on life,” said Newberg, a Washington, D.C. native and 1987 graduate of RPI. “I find the discoveries that are continually being made about how the universe and our own Milky Way came to be are amazing. I hope that this telescope will provide for the public a small window into that vast universe.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Valerie Rapson.

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