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Columbia astronomers see stars no more

On astronomy’s birthday—the 400th year since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the night sky—Columbia astronomers can’t see the stars anymore.

Due to construction of the Northwest Corner Building next to Pupin, the telescopes in the Rutherford Observatory on Pupin’s roof have been partially blocked.

According to Cameron Hummels, a Ph.D. student in the astronomy department and director of their outreach program, one-ninth of the night sky is blocked by the new structure, which is six floors higher than the roof of Pupin. “It blocks everything setting since it is on the west. We will not be able to see Mercury or Venus during the evening ever again,” he said.

In addition, Hummels said that the lights left on during construction of the Northwest Corner Building are also “increasingly a problem” because they “shine right on to the roof of Pupin,” making observing the night sky much more difficult. According to Hummels, astronomers complained to the construction company, which “hasn’t been responsive at all. They say that only the necessary lights are left on.”

Hummels said he understood that space was an issue when deciding on the placement of the new building, but “it didn’t seem like they took into account how it would impact other disciplines. Limiting astronomers to not being able to use the night sky is like trying to prevent chemists from having access to chemicals.”

Hummels insists that they do not object to the new building; the problem is that “the administration has failed to do anything in order to reduce its negative impact on the department.”

Negotiations have taken place between the university and the astronomy department about possibly moving the telescopes to another building on campus. Columbia administration officials declined to comment.

Hummels said that moving the telescopes to the new Northwest Corner Building was never an option. Fume hoods that will be placed in the new building will require connecting pipes to the roof, he added, so it will be impossible to have an observatory there as well.

Hummels also said that he heard a theory that the “designer just didn’t want such feminine structures as the astronomy domes on his masculine building.”

David Helfand , chair of the astronomy department and co-director of the Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory, said that astronomers “were disappointed that zero consideration was given to moving the observatory to this new structure, as it would have been an ideal location. We were then told another rooftop location on campus would be found, and some work was done to effect this until all capital projects were halted owing to the financial situation.”

Hummels said that Carman and Mudd were both considered possible relocation areas for the telescopes, but they were both bad options. Carman, being a freshman dorm, is very inaccessible to the astronomers and the public, and Mudd has a rooftop that is “not easily accessible.” Plus, their distance from the astronomy department is also inconvenient.

According to Hummels, the situation will “continue to get worse and worse” until a “major uprising occurs” due to the “lack of concern” the University has paid to the issue.

He noted that “one of the main draws to astronomy is being able to use telescopes and look at the night sky. As an educator, what really makes an imprint on a student is having them experience this for themselves. Students want to spend more time on the roof and actually seeing the things we talk about.”

Helfand agreed that the blocking of telescopes “is a major problem both for our educational program and for our very active public outreach programs, which are attended by literally thousands of people each semester.”

Arlin Crotts, an astronomy professor, said that public outreach programs are also required to get grants from NASA for their research, and that the department’s funding will decrease if they stop doing these public outreach programs.

He is doing research about the moon which he said requires “monitoring the near side of the moon in a way no one has done before.” For this project, which is centered in Pupin but also involves telescopes from around the world, the department has received a NASA grant of $130,000.

According to Crotts, the programs are harder to do “since we are now parked next to a giant glowing wall.”

news@columbiaspectator.com

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