The Judy & Stanley Frankel Detroit Observatory reopened its doors to the public Friday with the “Seeing Anew” symposium, a keynote speaker and a viewing night following three years of construction to the building.
The 7,000-square-foot addition includes a multi-use classroom and an accessible street-level entrance. Originally set to reopen in spring 2021, plans were set back one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Interim University President Mary Sue Coleman opened the symposium with remarks thanking those who have contributed to the observatory’s restoration and operations. These contributors included former University President Jim Duderstadt as well as Judy and Stanley Frankel, whom the observatory is now named after.
“The observatory not only reminds us of our history, but also serves as a place that encourages exploration and the sharing of knowledge,” Coleman said. “I am particularly pleased that with this renovation and expansion, we can welcome students of all ages to learn about the history of astronomy, astrophysics and more.”
The “Seeing Anew” symposium featured three virtual panels with various astronomers and U-M professors discussing the observatory’s historical contributions to astronomy research and its role in contemporary education.
The final virtual session featured astrophysicist and U-M alum Dr. Brian Nord as the keynote speaker. Nord works in the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and employs the use of machine learning to study dark matter and other cosmic phenomena. At the panel, Nord spoke about the valuable role that artificial intelligence can play in handling the immense scope and vast amounts of data involved in the field of astronomy.
“The data is so complex that there’s a lot more hidden in it than is really going to be easy or feasible for us to get with just human-derived or empirically-derived models alone,” Nord said. “Looking for patterns in the data, in the large-scale structure of galaxies … There’s really going to be these little faint hints and patterns that we need to discern.”
Officially open to the public starting at 8 p.m. Friday, the observatory allowed visitors to tour the building for the first time since 2019. Though no stargazing could occur due to cloud cover, attendees could explore the new addition and make their way up to the dome containing the Fitz telescope. When weather permits, the telescope allows observers to view the moon, stars and other planets. Over several decades, the telescope also helped astronomers discover over 20 asteroids and three comets.
Detroit Observatory Director Gary Krenz spoke with The Michigan Daily prior to the reopening event and discussed the history of the observatory — which was built in 1854 — and its role in transforming the University into a research institution.
“The observatory was built because the University’s first president, Henry Tappan, wanted the University to become a research university,” Krenz said. “The first director of the observatory, Franz Brünnow, was the first Ph.D. faculty member at U of M. He launched the first professional publication at U of M. And he really brought about a kind of revolution in astronomy education in the United States.”
Attendees could also view the historic Meridian Circle Telescope, which was originally created to measure the position of celestial objects with extreme precision. Event organizers explained that measuring star positions allowed astronomers to set a standard time for businesses and railroads throughout Michigan prior to the use of time zones.
Student docents also gave talks and provided demonstrations for visitors about the astronomical and historical uses of the observatory’s devices. In the new addition downstairs of the observatory, Cincinnati Observatory Astronomer Dean Regas gave a tour of the universe, zooming out from Earth into a simulated view of the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy and other parts of the observable universe.
LSA sophomore Eva Chavez, who works as a history docent for the observatory, said she enjoyed being in the presence of a building with such historical significance.
“I’m a history docent here at the observatory and I am particularly interested in the history of the building itself, what it did and the role it played in the University,” Chavez said. “I’m just glad to see people getting very engaged, (and) reconnecting with the University and its really interesting history.”
Rackham student Katya Gozman, an astronomy docent, gave a comprehensive demonstration of the Fitz telescope for visitors. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Gozman said she appreciated the opportunity to connect with community members again after the pandemic put things on hold.
“I really missed doing public outreach,” Gozman said. “Since COVID happened, (I) wasn’t able to do that much of it. It was really nice to be back doing something that I love, talking to people, seeing how excited they get when they see the telescope … I think the night was a big success.”
In an interview with The Daily, Austin Edmister, assistant director for Astronomy at the observatory, said the observatory was looking forward to hosting more programs and events for the U-M community, such as private events and weekly open house nights with programming on astronomy and history.
“In the future, approaching a point where we can be open daily and having our front doors unlocked for most of the week so people could come during the day, do solar observing at night,” Edmister said. “(We’re) really excited for that kind of growth as we ramp up further.”
Daily Staff Reporter Irena Li can be reached at email@example.com.