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Interstellar Sights at Bradley Observatory

The observatory offers easy access to the stars in Decatur’s backyard.

A beacon of curiosity and the unknown, the eggshell-white dome of Bradley Observatory erupts into view from the tree-covered path leading to its front doors. Dr. Alexandra Yep, Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Director of the Bradley Observatory at Agnes Scott College, welcomes a group of space-inspired knowledge seekers with a smile and pocket full of quick wit to the busyness of an event for April’s solar eclipse. 

Perched high above the city skyline between Winona Park and Oakhurst, the outdoor plaza in the shadow of the observatory provides a perfect view for the few-times-in-a-lifetime event. Yep exchanges a handful of protective eyewear and begins a thorough summary of the celestial activity as the crowd waits in anticipation.

It’s only one example of how Bradley Observatory is one of Decatur’s best-kept educational secrets. 

Quickly approaching its 75th anniversary, Bradley Observatory has served the exploration of the beyond for amateur and professional astronomers in Decatur well. Its centerpiece, the Beck Telescope, a nearly 100-year-old Cassegrain reflector telescope, was the largest of its kind in the Southeast until the Fernbank Science Center installed one a half-foot larger in the early 1970s. 

Despite its age, the Beck Telescope, the observatory's centerpiece, remains a marvel. Weighing as much as a car, it stands out for its size and manual control capabilities, offering a tangible connection to the stars that newer digital telescopes can't replicate. 

Currently, plans are underway to refurbish the telescope's mirror, a delicate operation involving transporting the 255-pound glass component to New York for resurfacing. The refurbishment of the facility’s cornerstone piece of equipment is expected to enhance its ability to reveal the wonders of the night sky. 

“Once the mirror is refurbished, we might use the telescope for variable star studies, asteroid tracking, or spectroscopy of bright stars," stated Yep. "It's not ideal for major research due to light pollution, but it still has potential for smaller projects and, of course, hands-on learning for students."

The observatory’s mission extends far beyond the confines of its dome. It serves as a vibrant educational hub, offering various enriching programs for Agnes Scott astronomy and physics students and the general public. Learning experiences and teaching opportunities will always be at the heart of the observatory, especially for the students it directly serves. Still, Yep says the main goal for the staff is outreach, to enlighten and inform the community about the wonders of space. 

"During the semester, one Friday evening per month, we have a public open house where we encourage the Decatur community to enjoy the wonders the observatory offers," Yep says. 

These public open house events, held one Friday evening per month during the semester, highlight the observatory's commitment to outreach. They are free and feature an engaging astronomy talk, a captivating planetarium show, and, weather permitting, stargazing sessions using both the main telescope and smaller telescopes set up on the plaza in front of the building.

“I love doing the open house,” Yep says, smiling. “They are a big highlight for me because so many people come in from the community to enjoy a glimpse into space together.

“Anytime you can show somebody Saturn, and they cry? That’s how I want these experiences to be.”

In an area with plenty of light pollution, intergalactic finds are usually limited to brighter objects like the moon or the planets - but that doesn’t stop the staff from finding new things for visitors to explore.

“Occasionally, we get to look at something like the Orion Nebula on really clear nights,” Yep says, referencing the bright nebulae in the center of the Orion constellation. 

“Or if we’re really lucky during the day, we can see the sun through a special filter,” she grins. 

Local schools also benefit from the observatory's resources. Tours for K-12 students are offered at minimal cost, providing young learners with an introduction to astronomy and the chance to see the impressively large telescope up close. Although daytime visits preclude actual stargazing, the tours inspire curiosity and encourage future participation in the monthly open houses.

On the main level of the building is a host of offices and classrooms, but its most notable feature is the Delafield Planetarium. The 70-seat facility, equipped with comfortable lean-back chairs and a vintage Zeiss projector, gives older generations a glimpse of the magical star show experiences from their childhood. Unlike digital projectors utilized by many newer planetariums around the United States, the Zeiss uses tiny lamps and holes to create a highly realistic night sky simulation. 

“It feels much more realistic than the newer versions," Yep noted, emphasizing the immersive experience the throwback projector provides. “It’s easy to sit down and get lost in the wonder of the stars.”

Just ensure you are rested before you visit, for it can be tempting to be quickly entranced by the magnitude of the night sky and drift off into a peaceful state. 

Whatever your interest in galaxies beyond our own, Yep hopes that Decatur residents will continue to stop by for one of the observatories' offerings soon. 

“We want people to hopefully learn something, but also have fun doing it.”

Dr. Alexandra Yep is a passionate astronomer from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her fascination with the stars began in childhood, inspired by the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and H.A. Rey. Despite initially pursuing a different career path due to skepticism about astronomy as a viable profession, Yep's unwavering love for the cosmos led her to shift her focus.

Her educational journey is a testament to her determination and passion. Dr. Yep first earned a BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, showcasing her diverse interests. However, she made a bold decision to switch gears entirely, pursuing a Master's degree in Physics at California State University, Northridge. Her journey continued south, where she obtained her Ph.D. in astronomy at Georgia State University. She is currently in her second year teaching at Agnes Scott.

Enjoy a glimpse into space.

It’s easy to sit down and get lost in the wonder of the stars.