The UNM Campus Observatory has initiated a crowdfunding campaign in an effort to raise funds for the planning of a new Campus Observatory. The current Campus Observatory was built in the 1950s and is now outdated among other concerns.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy operates the Campus Observatory which provides an important scientific opportunity for UNM students, school groups and the general public interested in viewing the night skies in a convenient setting within the Albuquerque city limits. In addition to its age, the Campus Observatory lacks several key aspects for its education and outreach mission. Additionally, new construction and the associated light pollution in the area will soon render the current site unsuitable for education, outreach or research.

As part of its mission, the UNM Campus Observatory carries out three primary focus areas including education, outreach and research. In terms of education, the UNM Campus Observatory serves approximately 600 undergraduate students per year with lectures and labs that include both direct telescope observations as well as calculations and computer exercises performed in the classroom at the observatory.  

Community outreach is also an important component as the UNM Campus Observatory is the largest outreach program within the UNM Department of Physics and Astronomy. The Campus Observatory is open for no fee public viewing sessions every Friday night during the fall and spring semesters serving more than 2,000 visitors during these popular viewing sessions for families, scout troops and school classes.

To access the crowdfunding page on the UNM Foundation website, visit Campus Observatory

Special events, such as solar eclipses and planet transits, are also available and typically draw thousands of visitors. Friday Open Nights are further enhanced by the enthusiastic support of the Albuquerque Astronomical Society, an amateur astronomer organization whose members set up their telescopes in the parking lot outside the observatory. This provides a suite of telescopes where members of the public can enjoy viewing the night sky. The current facility lacks a dedicated outreach area where visitors can become excited and learn more about the universe, and astronomy science.

“We cannot provide a simple experience like a mini-lecture to the public during the Open Nights, as there is no space accommodating this activity,” said Pihlstrom. “The observatory was never designed for this purpose. A new observatory could greatly enhance the enjoyment of our visitors. There is a strong commitment from both students and faculty to our outreach events, and we all want to improve the quality of our events and visitor experience.”

Research is another key component provided by the UNM Campus Observatory. As a Research I institution, multiple faculty members and graduate students have used the facility to develop instrumentation and systems as part of their research. An example of future possibilities is Assistant Professor Dian Dragomir, a new hire in the Department of Physics and Astronomy who studies exoplanets. Much in the way of new research data is being provided by the James Webb Space Telescope which directly affects Dragomir’s research. This exciting new field draws enormous attention from both students and the public, and if the facility allowed, UNM could provide direct research experience for undergraduate and graduate students with the possibility of discovering new planets.

This program would also strongly support UNM’s effort of providing first-year research experiences to our students. At this time, the facility lacks the technology needed to run such a program efficiently and the light pollution from the surrounding new buildings will also prevent such research from happening at the observatory’s current location.

“Keeping the observatory as a research facility enables opportunities for research grant proposals,” said Pihlstrom.

Other key considerations for a new Campus Observatory include ADA Compliance and location. The main telescope at the current UNM Campus Observatory is not ADA Compliant due to wheelchair accessibility. Access to the observing platform is by a single narrow, steep staircase, which causes traffic jams as people try to go up and down. Light from nearby structures is another huge concern. With several new buildings being built in the area, light pollution impacts the ability to see the night-time sky, which makes it more difficult to see many of the background stars that add to the joy of stargazing. There is also very limited parking available at the current facility.

“The continued addition of structures will limit sightlines and lead to an unprecedented level of stray light for the observatory to cope with, seriously compromising the quality of observations and the visitor experience,” said Pihlstrom. “This will impact the education of our students as well as the public outreach experience and prevent research projects from taking place.”

Based on similar campus observatories, a new campus observatory would cost approximately $2 million. Tentative plans include a possible new location near the UNM North Golf Course, a lecture hall, two domes, and a ~0.6m diameter research telescope with associated equipment. 

“The Campus Observatory provides a hands-on experience for our students, and it is a unique public relations instrument via our outreach programs, accessible right in the center of Albuquerque,” said Pihlstrom. “With a new UNM Campus Observatory, we would be able to expand UNM efforts in education, outreach, and research. A new facility could also serve as an outward-facing marketing instrument for UNM.”

For more information, visit UNM Campus Observatory.