GSU observatory at Hard Labor holds free open houses throughout the summer

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By Nick Nunn staff writer

Morgan County’s Hard Labor Creek State Park is the home to one of the eight observatories used for research in the state of Georgia. Georgia State University’s (GSU) Hard Labor Creek Observatory, which boasts three research-grade telescopes, hosts public open houses during one Saturday a month from March to October. During the most recent open house, which was last Saturday, June 7, a small crowd of stargazers made their way to the carefully secluded facility to observe the night sky through a collection of smaller telescopes, while getting the chance to interact with the volunteer staff. Dr. Russel White, associate professor at GSU and director of Hard Labor Creek Observatory, said that GSU has been offering free tours of the observatory since it was constructed in the 1980s. “An unofficial agreement was made with the state park that if they allowed us to build an observatory there, that we’d host free public observing nights,” said White.

He added that the park typically has a larger group of visitors and campers on the days of the open houses. GSU’s website dedicated to the Hard Labor Creek observatory, http://www.chara.gsu.edu/HLCO, states that the location of the observatory in rural Morgan County allows astronomers to “take advantage of the dark skies, away from the light pollution of Atlanta, Conyers, and Covington, to observe objects as near as the Moon and as far away as the edge of our visible Universe.” White stated that the two main telescopes at the observatory are the 24” Miller Telescope and the 20” McAlister Telescope, both of which are usually available to the public during the open house nights. GSU’s astronomy program is a joint program with the physics department, but White said that there are eight GSU professors dedicated to astronomy, as well as approximately 25 graduate students, who are working toward earning their Ph.D. from GSU in astronomy.

White stated that the Hard Labor Creek observatory is frequently used by GSU staff and students for research. “Our relatively new telescopes are enabling some basic research to be done there,” began White. “Leading this is one of our professors, Dr. Misty Bentz.  She and several students are using the Miller Telescope to monitor the brightness of several galaxies that harbor black holes in their very center, and that appear to be accreting material and giving off tremendous amounts of light as a consequence.

“By monitoring their brightness over time, you can learn things about how is the light being generated, how close to the black hole is the material that is emitting that light, and in combination with other measurements, how massive is the black hole.” White said that GSU’s “flagship” telescope is the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) Array, located on Mt. Wilson in California. “CHARA is an interferomenter, a type of telescope that combines light from many telescopes and provides a resolution equivalent to a telescope as big as the distance between its telescopes,” said White.

“It’s a pretty amazing device, and, in fact, is actually the world’s longest baseline interferometer working at optical/infrared wavelengths.” White noted that the resolution of the CHARA Array is 100 times better than that of the Hubble Space Telescope. He also said that GSU is part of a consortium that allows its scientists to use telescopes in Chile, Arizona, and Hawaii, as well. The next public open house for the Hard Labor Creek observatory will be Saturday, July 12, beginning at 9 p.m. Additional open houses will take place through the month of October.

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