UNL Physics and Astronomy Students See Seasons Through Stars

News Channel Nebraska Visits UNL’s Historic Behlen Observatory

For these University of Nebraska – Lincoln students, looking up towards the sky means something. A wonder to be discovered and studied. An explanation for why our planet functions the way it does. A map of stars.

For years, the sky has been our guide, and that’s why the UNL Department of Physics and Astronomy encourages their students to learn hands on.

Physics and Astronomy Laboratory Manager Shawn Langan says, “One of the big things we love to focus on is how you see the night sky from different regions on the earth and different seasons of the year. So, that’s been a major focus in our introductory courses. And in the more advance courses, we capitalize on that and say, ‘Okay, we want to observe these kind of stars…can we observe them all year round?’ Typically not. Typically you can only observe them a few months out of the year, and so our students will know that as they go into their research projects.”

About 40 minutes northeast from Lincoln’s campus near Meade, Nebraska, sits UNL’s Behlen Observatory.

Behlen carries a unique and historical background, and is home to a powerful telescope.

Langan says, “Before, the building was used as a bomb factory changing room. During World War II and the Korean War, this was a bomb factory. The employees would come to this building and change their clothes into attire appropriate for dealing with hazardous chemicals, they would walk through a tunnel to the bomb-making area, and then would go back through the tunnel and change into normal regular clothes when they were finished.”

Within the last few decades, the old bomb factory building has been converted into an observatory for student use and research.

Langan says, “UNL Astronomer Kam-Ching Leung was leading the project to find donations to buy a 24-inch telescope. Actually, what he ended up doing was saving some money on this project by having this building, which was already here and ready to go as an observatory, and they bought a 30-inch telescope back in 1972. The observatory has been up and running ever since.”

Although the observatory serves as an interactive tool for student use, it has also been open to the public to explore and discover.

Langan says, “Well, this telescope began as a research building. Since then research money has dried up a bit, so we’ve turned it into an outreach and teaching facility. Currently what we do, four times a year, we have the entire observatory open to the general public. Anybody that wants to come, can come out here and observe the Heavens through several telescopes, the 30 inch main telescope being the primary one. They can see physics demonstrations, and the physics students will bring interactive demonstrations.”

You can learn more about the UNL Behlen Observatory and its public events by visiting their website: observatory.unl.edu