Nonprofits – Bringing starry skies into focus: Dudley Observatory a source of learning for 165 years and counting

Interim executive director of the Dudley Observatory Melanie Evans stands next to a Celestron telescope on the roof of the Breyo Observatory at Siena College’s Roger Bacon Hall
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Interim executive director of the Dudley Observatory Melanie Evans stands next to a Celestron telescope on the roof of the Breyo Observatory at Siena College’s Roger Bacon Hall

No matter your age, starry skies can amaze and inspire. But sometimes looking up isn’t enough. We have to find the time and space to look upward and learn.

Founded in 1856, the Dudley Observatory was originally intended to live within a broader university, an institution that ideally would compete with those of Europe and reduce some of the brain drain that had been occurring (through which United States talent would depart the country to complete their studies abroad).

Unfortunately, the dream of a university never came to pass, but the observatory has stood the test of time thanks in part to Albany resident Blandina Dudley. The widow made a sizable donation — $100,000, to be exact — in memory of her recently deceased husband and area politician, Charles Dudley.

“The mission back then — and the mission Dudley Observatory held for quite some time — was research,” said Melanie Evans, interim executive director. “Efforts were dedicated toward recataloging the stars, and in the end they cataloged as many as 50,000, working through the first part of the 20th century.”

Evans is quick to point out that those calculations were complicated, to say the least, and every single one was done by hand. “For every star they’re measuring, it’s as many as 20 hours of mathematical computations to determine its exact location.”

Point of fact: The majority of the staff completing those calculations were women. That legacy of a commitment to women in science has continued through the modern era, with several women serving on the board over the course of the past several decades, all of whom come from various scientific fields of study, from physics to earth science.

However, whereas Dudley’s prime mission was once research, its modern mission emphasizes education with astronomy still at its core.

“With the rise of organizations like NASA, an observatory like ours simply couldn’t keep up with that level of tech, although we collaborated with them during the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Evans said.

The observatory itself has moved several times in the past 165 years, most recently making the transition from miSci in Schenectady to Siena College in 2019, with Dudley’s Celestron telescope seated on the same rooftop as Siena’s own Breyo telescope. Evans was brought on in the summer of 2020 to help steer the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic, but she’s the first to note that she didn’t come from the astronomy world. In fact, her background is rooted in the zoo and aquarium realms, including positions at Mystic Aquarium and John G. Shedd Aquarium.

As far as the future, Evans had this to say: “Once we’re able to reopen, that’s where all the ideas pop up.”

Given their current location at Siena College, she’s excited to tap into the campus’ features and someday offer “Astronomy on Tap” sessions and “ ‘Mythbusters’-like talks.”

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“There’s just so many different ways now to engage people and we want to take advantage of that,” Evans said. Until then (and while she, her team and the board continue to brainstorm), here’s a look at current and planned programming:

Octagon Barn Star Parties
Held monthly, free of charge online. Head to the Dudley’s website or Facebook for more details.

“Prepandemic, we would set out chairs and projectors on a farm in Delanson and bring in scientists to talk about everything from physics to dark matter, as well as the latest happenings with Milky Way research and the theory of time travel and whether it’s possible,” Evans said. “And then guests would view the stars with telescopes.”

In the wake of COVID-19, Dudley’s “star parties” moved online to Zoom out of necessity, but the virtual platform meant they could bring in speakers from around the country, including those from NASA, enabling them to expand their range of subjects.

Evans said she looks forward to bringing the talks back to Delanson in 2022 (fingers crossed) and imagines a hybrid approach once it’s safe to do so, with virtual talks held during the winter months and live, outdoor talks planned during the more comfortable months.

The Rising Stars Internship Program
Open to Greater Capital Region youth ages 14 to 18. Free to apply and there’s no cost to participating interns.

Each cohort trains roughly 10 interns and runs for 10 months, with applications open every April. Interns meet monthly (normally in person, but Zoom sessions have been the norm in the wake of COVID-19), and learn the basics of astronomy and night sky viewing, as well as the moon phases and the universe.

“At the end of the program interns get their own telescope and are encouraged to host their own star-viewing parties within their own communities, and share their new knowledge more widely,” Evans said.

Cosmic Adventures Lecture Series
$150 per hourlong program; ad hoc scheduling. Head to the website or email [email protected] to learn more.

“Prepandemic, we would host these on location at Dudley or an astronomer would head out to an area nursing home to give an hourlong lecture on a variety of topics — everything from NASA’s Parker Solar Probe to a discussion of passing asteroids, or what to expect out of the fall star viewing period,” Evans said. Currently these programs are being hosted remotely through video links.

Attendees don’t have to be science experts, they just need an interest in science and a willingness to learn. Once Dudley resumes in-person education, Evans said the series will ideally be run on-site at Siena College.

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Starry Skies Virtual Planetarium Experiences
Bookings upon request; $150 flat fee for a 45-minute session

In the coming months, schools, groups and local organizations will be able to book a virtual talk over Zoom, Microsoft Teams of Google Meet and experience the skies “firsthand,” albeit virtually. The host astronomer takes attendees through a planetarium show catered to the group’s interests, and the program can even be used as an interactive birthday party activity.

Star Lab
Bookings upon request, once it’s safe to do so. $600 flat fee for up to five, 45-minute sessions Email [email protected] for more information.

This inflatable planetarium is completely portable, making it perfect for use in schools with a sufficiently large space such as a cafeteria or gym — necessary, considering it sits at 22 square feet and 11 feet high.

Due to COVID-19 the Star Lab program is currently on pause, but Evans believes they’ll begin to revisit programming once children are eligible for vaccinations, although they have no concrete plans as of yet.

“It’s a super, super lightweight tent which is hooked up to a fan and inflates itself into a giant dark room,” Evans said. “Kids sit on the edges to keep it down, but it has the feel of a lightweight parachute. The projector goes into the center and can project the night sky in all of its variations.”

Nothing is prerecorded, and the astronomer who accompanies every Star Lab experience can adapt each session to fit the interests of students or even their classroom curriculum.

Skywatch Line
Updates are posted to the website and Facebook page daily; mini versions available on TikTok

“We do something called the Skywatch Line, which offers a very detailed run-through of what hobbyist astronomers or even just interested Capital Region residents can expect when viewing the sky that night,” Evans said.

The daily updates are composed by the Albany Area Amateur Astronomers and include everything from the moon phase to the moon’s setting and rising, as well as whether any unique planetary bodies might be visible or if the International Space Station is doing a flyover.

Dudley Observatory
YEAR FOUNDED: 1856
MISSION: The Dudley Observatory provides education and outreach programs designed to bring the wonders of science, particularly astronomy, to people of all ages. We cultivate interest and understanding of science, history of science, science careers and scientists, and help non-scientists appreciate science in an approachable and enjoyable way. All Dudley Observatory programs and events are developed with this mission in mind.
AREAS SERVED: Capital Region residents of all ages, from 6 years old to 106, give or take.
QUOTE FROM DIRECTOR: “In the past couple of years, we’ve seen science unfolding in real time and experienced the confusion that can surround it, demonstrating how much scientific literacy is needed, and needed now,” said Melanie Evans, interim executive director. “Dudley is hugely committed to making science — especially astronomy and astrophysics — accessible to as many people in the greater Capital Region and beyond as possible.
“Even during the height of the shutdown, heading outside to enjoy the night sky was always available. People could do what humanity has been doing for thousands and thousands of years — looking up to the stars and wondering.”

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Categories: Life and Arts, Nonprofits 2021

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