Written in the Stars: Widener Observatory Bridges the Gap Between Earth and the Universe

Nicole Carrera, Assistant Director of Communications
a person looks through a large telescope at the Widener University Observatory
A stargazer looks through the Observatory's telescope

The Widener University Observatory perched atop Kirkbride Hall is a stellar place for area stargazers to gather, serving over 1000 students, faculty, staff, and community members in the 2022-2023 academic year alone.

While the observatory in its current location is preparing to celebrate its 20th anniversary in January 2025, Widener has had an observatory on campus since 1892 when the Hyatt Observatory, at 14th Street and Melrose Avenue, was constructed.

A photo of the Hyatt Observatory circa 1890's
Hyatt Observatory ca. 1890's

Harry Augensen, emeritus professor of physics and astronomy, and current director of the observatory, joined the faculty at Widener in 1982 and began using the Hyatt Observatory for his classes.

“I persisted for a year,” Augensen recalls. “In the second year I continued to use it until one night my foot went right through a floorboard on the staircase.”

The Hyatt Observatory was no longer safe to use with students, but Augensen was still determined to bring the stars to life. He set up a portable telescope on top of Kirkbride Hall and brought his classes there to view the night sky. When James T. Harris III became president of Widener in 2002, he called on the entire campus to find ways to engage the community in their work.

“[President Harris] stressed the need for doing outreach to the community as a university. I had the idea to do some minor outreach with the telescope by hosting public sessions that were very limited in size,” Augensen said. “People were inspired by what they saw.”

In 2003, Augensen hosted a public night to view Mars which would be at its closest point to Earth in 60,000 years. Word spread through area media, and a crowd of over 400 people from Widener and the surrounding community showed up to see the Red Planet.

“We were the hottest ticket in town,” said Augensen. “From about 8:30 at night to 1 o’clock in the morning I was showing people the planet Mars through our portable telescope. That is one of my fondest memories.”

As the Chester campus was undergoing renovations to Kirkbride hall, and the need for more stargazing space was growing, Augensen was made aware of a grant from NASA that would supply funding for a new observatory if the receiving organization promised to do community outreach with it.

A crane lifts the observatory dome into the roof while spectators watch
Widener Observatory dome installation, 2004

Augensen and other members of the staff, including Martin Schultz, support scientist in the College of Arts & Sciences, vetted vendors for a dome and telescope and crafted the grant proposal for a new observatory on the roof of the addition being constructed to Kirkbride Hall.

Their construction plans were approved, and their grant proposal was accepted by NASA. In 2004, the observatory dome was placed on the roof of Kirkbride Hall via crane in front of an audience of campus spectators, the telescope was installed, and in January 2005 the observatory opened its doors.

John Conte ’09 was a senior at the local Interboro High School for the opening. He was considering coming to Widener and attended a Widener Day where he met with Augensen and his decision was made.

“Dr. Augensen promised me that if I chose Widener, I would be able to play a vital role in the success of the Astronomy Outreach Program. Now, 20 years later, I still work with Dr. Augensen weekly to promote astronomy education to the general public,” said Conte, who serves as assistant director of the observatory and an adjunct faculty member in the College of Arts & Sciences.

The observatory continues to host classes, public stargazing nights, and special group events throughout the academic year. Led by Augensen and Conte, with Schultz operating the telescope, attendees get a glimpse at planets, star clusters, the Moon, and more- all free of charge.

Both Augensen and Conte agree that educating and inspiring others is the best part of the job.

Conte’s dedication to education goes beyond his work at the observatory. After graduating Widener, he returned to Interboro High School to teach physics. 

“What I really love is being able to share my passion for astronomy with the community and with my students who visit the observatory. It is often a chance to bond with many of my students who attend with their family and friends,” said Conte. “There is nothing like seeing the awe-struck look on their faces when they first see the craters on the moon or the rings of Saturn.”

Having grown up in the space age of the 1960s, Augensen was inspired by space missions such as Mariner 4 and Apollo 11. He has dedicated his life to the field of astronomy and inspiring others to do the same.

“I try to bring that tone of inspiration to our sessions here by telling people how many light years away the stars are or how many billions of miles for the planets,” Augensen said. “If just one or two facts stick with someone then I think we’ve succeeded.”

Interested in attending a stargazing session or planning one for a group? 

Learn more here

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