Observatory lets students, public explore the sky

Despite San Francisco's reputation for fog, the view is amazing from the top of one of SF State's tallest buildings.

A photo of SF State students Simon Bacholle and Priyanjoli Mukherjee working with a telescope in the SF State observatory.SF State junior Simon Bacholle, left, and grad student Priyanjoli Mukherjee work with a telescope in the SF State observatory at the top of Thornton Hall.

Three nights a week -- if the sky is free of clouds -- students and others head to the top of Thornton Hall to look at stars, planets and anything else in the night sky in SF State's observatory, which is run by students through the College of Science and Engineering. It is a unique facility open to anyone curious about astronomy, says Adrienne Cool, professor of physics and astronomy and the faculty coordinator for the observatory.

"Nobody has an observatory that's open multiple days a week, all semester," Cool said. "It's a rare treasure to have a facility like this where anyone can come get a close-up view of the planets, stars, and much more."

Along with the fourth-floor planetarium, the observatory was built into Thornton Hall when the building was constructed in the early 1970s. The facility has a roll-top roof and four telescopes, the largest of which, nicknamed "Big Red," was recently donated by SF State alum John Luongo (attended '02-'07). Three nights a week, as long as the sky is clear at dusk, anyone is welcome to drop in. A chalkboard explains what is visible through each telescope, and student volunteers are on hand to point the gaze of astronomy neophytes in the right direction and explain what they are looking at.

Staffing the observatory and answering questions from the campus community and public is a great experience, said SF State physics and astronomy grad student Priyanjoli Mukherjee, who is working her way toward a Ph.D. program. Junior Stephanie Lauber, a physics and astronomy major, also enjoys helping others navigate the night sky. "I wanted to try my hand at teaching," she said. "I really like working with the people that come in."

The observatory is open Mondays through Wednesdays on clear nights during the semester from dusk (currently about 7:30 p.m.) to 9:30 p.m. Students and members of the public can check the observatory's Facebook page to find out if the facility will be open that evening.

Now is a good time to visit the observatory, Cool said, because Jupiter, Venus and Mars are all visible. The observatory is planning an event, weather permitting, on June 5 for the "transit of Venus" -- when Venus will pass across the sun, and is considering another event on May 20, also weather permitting, for a near-total solar eclipse.

"It's an amazing facility to have right here on campus," Cool said, "and it's a nice study break. "

To get to the observatory, take the elevator in Thornton Hall to the ninth floor and follow the signs to the observatory. You can learn more about the facility on the SF State Astronomy website.

-- Jonathan Morales