Alumni Alumni: UMass Dartmouth premieres renovations, reopens Hirshfeld-Dowd Observatory

Alumni Alumni: UMass Dartmouth premieres renovations, reopens Hirshfeld-Dowd Observatory
UMass Dartmouth premieres renovations, reopens Hirshfeld-Dowd Observatory

After over a decade of harsh New England winters, the observatory’s rotatable dome now sits atop a rebuilt, well-sealed foundation, ready to resume scholarly use.

People line up outside the observatory
Guests formed a long line outside the Hirshfeld-Dowd Observatory, yearning for a glimpse at a nearly full moon and a fully-ringed Saturn.

On August 31, the Corsair community gathered in the heart of the Hirshfeld-Dowd Observatory at UMass Dartmouth and star-gazed with its primary instrument, a computerized 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. Excited murmurs from donors, students, alumni, and more filled the recently renovated space, decorative twinkling lights illuminating their eagerness to catch a glimpse of a fully-ringed Saturn.

It’s been years since the quaint Hirshfeld-Dowd Observatory housed so many guests, but it was the utmost special occasion: the first phase of renovations was finally complete. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the observatory’s rotatable dome was neither watertight nor movable. In dire need of structural improvements, it couldn’t properly serve our scholars in their astronomical endeavors.

Now, with a stable dome foundation, it’s a reliable source of astronomy outreach to on-campus communities and beyond, like curious-minded youth in local public school districts. At an intimate, celebratory reception in the Dion Building lobby before the observatory’s unveiling, Dean of the College of Engineering, Jean VanderGheynst, said to a cheering crowd, “We need to ensure students have pathways and opportunities to careers in STEM to meet the demands of our future workforce.

“As a public institution, it is critical that we participate in addressing this challenge and increase the number of students in STEM programs,” she continued. “To do this, we need to give them out-of-school experiences, provide them with opportunities to become practitioners of science, and expose them to repeated interactions with STEM professionals. I am extremely proud to have this observatory at UMass Dartmouth that will not only contribute to research and education, but also community engagement and student access to unique learning opportunities.”

People enjoy reception for the Observatory's reopening
Guests enjoyed snacks, beverages, and beautiful weather as they star-gazed with the observatory's main instrument and multiple on-site telescopes.

Just outside the observatory, additional telescopes were available for guests to enjoy through a partnership with the Astronomical Society of Southern New England. The organization also provided expertise throughout the observatory’s renovations, particularly through collaboration with astronomical society President Mark Munkascy.

Munkascy hopes to expose science to all age groups with this reopening. He declared, “It is our mission to let undergraduate students and others in the community know they have the skills to make significant astronomical contributions. The equipment is good enough. They are good enough.”

Guests peered through the observatory’s telescope and used its new mechanics to inspect space’s enigmatic beauty, thrilled to see operations resume after an extended period of disuse. The evening featured riveting discussions that delved into the boundless realms of space and its countless secrets. With this completed phase of renovations, UMass Dartmouth’s community of scholars can now partake in unraveling those perplexing mysteries about the cosmos.

A subsequent phase of upgrades for the observatory will add a digital camera to support critical research ventures and enrichen the undergraduate curriculum. It will allow for the observation of exoplanets that orbit other stars, the search for optical counterparts to gravity wave black hole events, and the precise measurements of star position and brightness. This next phase will also connect the observatory to the campus computer network, letting instructors bring what the observatory offers right to the classroom.

“When I was in college, I met my wife, Elizabeth, and we used to coordinate our schedules to have the same classes. One of them was astronomy, and I remember falling in love with space and her at the same time. This cause is near and dear to my heart,” said donor Edward “Ted” Brainard, a dear friend of retiring UMass Dartmouth physics professor and former observatory director, Alan Hirshfeld. 

Prof Hirshfeld tours observatory with New Bedford students
Prior to its recent renovations, Professor Hirshfeld used the observatory as a learning hub for local youth and often gave tours to scholars in the community, like the students at Our Sisters School in New Bedford.

Professor Hirshfeld joined the Physics Department at UMass Dartmouth in 1978. He created PHY 151 (Introductory Astronomy) in the early 1980s, and, after four decades, it is still the most popular GenEd course the department offers. A versatile and innovative teacher, he made significant contributions to undergraduate education and won the 2009 Leo M. Sullivan Teacher of the Year Award, an honor bestowed upon a professor who has demonstrated a particular dedication to students through exceptionally meritorious teaching and advising.

Aside from personal motivation to support these renovations, it is Brainard’s companionship with Hirshfeld and Hirshfeld’s belief in UMass Dartmouth students’ ability to be astronomical leaders that propelled the Brainard couple to generously fund a large portion of the observatory's reopening.

“Since the 1960s, I’ve been impressed by the growth of UMass Dartmouth's engineering college,” he said. “I hope students feel an excitement for science with these renovations. There is so much happening in outer space, and we need UMass Dartmouth students to provide interpretations. We need them to lead the nation in space discoveries.”

As an almost full moon illuminated the night sky, excitement over new possibilities for UMassD students glazed over the eyes of all who attended the grand reopening of the Hirshfeld-Dowd Observatory.

For inquiries regarding the Observatory, please contact