GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — As women astronauts made international headlines with the first all-woman spacewalk, six local women were making their own mark on stargazing history.
This week, Stockton University is celebrating the reopening of the Harold E. Taylor Observatory, which was restored over the past two years by six women physics majors.
Briena Feltner, Tara Jacobsen, Colleen Lindenau, Courtney Weber and Gracie Buondonno this year completed the work began by their predecessor, Miriam Saad, in restoring the 43-year-old observatory.
“Coming in as a freshman, it was interesting that Stockton had an observatory. It was one of the reasons I came here,” said Lindenau, 20, of Dumont, Bergen County.
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The students were also excited to have the observatory open for classes and public viewings, the first of which will be next Thursday night.
“It’s a really good opener to get people interested in science,” Jacobsen said.
The 16-foot round structure has sat unused in the field off Pomona Road since the early 2000s. A wooden sign carved with the observatory’s namesake and a telescope looking up at a cartoonish moon relays to passersby its use; and rust collected along the edges of the metal dome roof shows its age.
The restoration began with a question in 2017.
“A student, Miriam Saad, asked why it wasn’t open and if we could get it open again,” physics professor Joe Trout said. “I said, ‘Let’s go ask the dean.’”
Peter Straub, dean of the school of natural sciences and mathematics, and Provost Lori Vermeulen supported the idea, and the project got underway. Funding for the restoration came from student grants and a donation from the family of an amateur astronomer.
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Saad graduated in 2018, and Trout recruited Feltner, who helped replace the Hall Effect Transducer in the telescope.
Jacobsen, 20, of Egg Harbor Township, who is majoring in both education and physics, was recruited for another purpose.
“I’m working on (creating) the course that uses the observatory as a lab,” she said.
Feltner said “space is trending” right now, especially when it comes to women, and she was happy to make her own imprint at the college, where about 82% of the college’s 350 physics majors are men.
“Stockton is a smaller university, so it’s good to be the role model,” said the 20-year-old from Jackson Township, Ocean County.
Feltner added that other women should see they can stand out and make moves.
“We all support each other because we’re all women,” said Weber, 20, of Jefferson Township, Morris County.
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Amy Taylor Brooks, daughter of Harold E. Brooks, the Stockton faculty member for whom the observatory is named, said her dad would have loved to know that the observatory was restored by an all-women group.
“He has two daughters, and my older sister is actually a physicist and math teacher, so a lot of his efforts were put into educating us,” said Taylor Brooks, an attorney in Pennsylvania.
Taylor Brooks and her siblings spent part of their youth childhood in Egg Harbor City while their father taught at Stockton.
“When I was real little, back when Halley’s Comet was being seen, he woke me up in the middle of the night and we went out there and he was so excited that I was the first kid to see Halley’s Comet. In that observatory,” Taylor Brooks said.
She said her family was unaware that the facility had closed after her father’s death in 2002, or of the recent restoration efforts, but believes her dad would have been happy about it.
“The observatory was my dad’s life, and he put an extensive amount of effort and energy into that — and into Stockton’s energy house at the time — so for Stockton alumni and current faculty and students to be bringing this back to life is an amazing tribute,” Taylor Brooks said. “He would have probably been surprised at how much he made a difference in making it go, but one person could make a difference.”
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Trout said the last time he remembers the observatory open was when he was an undergraduate, noting he graduated from the college in 1986 and also remembered seeing Halley’s Comet there.
He said the observatory closed to the public sometime after it was renamed in 2003 for Taylor for a variety of reasons, which some attributed to light pollution in the area. Then it closed for good and became a storage facility of sorts.
“When we came in, we actually found the telescope in pieces on the ground,” Trout said. “We had to find all these old manuals that didn’t exist anymore.”
The students cleaned and painted, and got to work restoring the 16-inch Meade LX 200 Schmidt-Cassegrain computer controlled telescope.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Trout said.
Feltner said it would be good to get a new telescope, which would cost about $10,000 — fundraising efforts are underway — as well as a new dome roof for the facility.
Trout said the restoration of the observatory will draw more interest in the science programs at Stockton, but the students learned a valuable lesson in the work, too.
“I think it’s really good because the students are working in a real-world problem. They learned sometimes in science they have to get a little bit dirty,” he said.