Old made new: Efforts to restore the Cardwell Observatory are underway

The outside of the observatory of Cardwell Hall at Kansas State campus in Manhattan, Kan. on Sept. 20, 2017. (Logan Wassall | Collegian Media Group)

Many students know of the observatory on top of Cardwell, but not many know that it has not been used for over 20 years. However, that tally will soon come to a halt. Brett DePaola, head of the physics department, said the department hopes to “have everything fixed up in the coming year.”

Bharat Ratra, distinguished professor of physics, said the observatory was not running well when he started teaching at Kansas State 20 years ago.

“I work on cosmology,” Ratra said. “The way you study this is to use a bunch of different telescopes. … I thought there would be some interest here in trying to get this up and running.”

“Gravel from the roof was jammed into the dome door, making it completely impossible to close the dome,” DePaola said. “Because the observatory was essentially unused at that time, nobody noticed that rain was getting in and causing damage. When we did notice, we dismantled the telescope and removed other sensitive equipment from the observatory. We eventually figured out that the dome was not damaged, and we cleared out the gravel.

“Nowadays, all reasonable astronomy is done on mountaintops,” DePaola continued. “Nobody does real astronomy down in [the] atmosphere. You could get beautiful sky out near Tuttle Creek, but nothing like you’d get on a mountaintop because you still have all that atmosphere above you.”

DePaola said the observatory could be used for parties and K-State outreach.

“We’re going to put money into refurbishing, and the idea will be to — first of all, physics club can have just a ball with it.” DePaola said. “We’re thinking they can have little star parties where they can invite a limited number of people and just get people’s awareness out. We plan to use it for outreach … for K-State folks and local folks when there is something interesting going on.”

Not only could fixing the observatory be great for the physics department at K-State, but also for the university as a whole.

“I do think that it could be a tool for research by the professors here,” Jake Anderson, a sophomore in secondary education, said.

“It’s good for our students in the physics department because they get to play with these cool toys, they get to host all these outreach things and they’re very excited about it,” DePaola said. “But it’s also good for the university because it gets students from all over the state onto campus. Maybe they’d major in physics, but most likely not, but while they’re here for a planetarium show, they’ll see the rest of the campus and maybe get excited about coming here.”