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This state decision will make stargazing easier at UNG Dahlonega
New observatory at the University of North Georgia will expand educational programs
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Courtesy University of North Georgia.

The University of North Georgia is moving ahead with a $1.4 million project to demolish and rebuild its night sky observatory near the Dahlonega campus thanks to approval from the University System of Georgia.

The new single-level, 3,200-square-foot building, which the university will fund, will help UNG expand upon existing educational programs at the observatory for students and the wider community.

The North Georgia Astronomical Observatory was opened on UNG’s campus in 1968.

But 20 years ago, as population growth brought with it more light pollution, the observatory was moved about four miles from campus to UNG’s outdoor recreation complex near Pine Valley.

“Out where it was darker,” said Dr. Richard Prior, head of UNG’s physics department.

Prior said UNG’s George E. Coleman Sr. Planetarium was upgraded a few years ago, and getting started on the observatory has been a mission ever since.

In fact, it’s been a long time coming.

The observatory still uses its original telescope, which lacks guiding technology, for example, and more space is needed inside its domed walls.

Two new telescopes have already been purchased, which will allow students to see farther into deep space, and they will be attached to cameras that record data and observations for current and future research.

The new observatory will nicely “complement” the planetarium, Prior said.

According to UNG officials, the new facility is expected to have office space, storage space, a small classroom area, a public-access space, two bathrooms and a kitchenette.

Prior said he expects the new observatory will enhance UNG’s astronomy and physics programs.

For example, Prior said adding a concentration in astrophysics for undergraduate majors is a likely result of the new observatory.

More than 200 students each semester take an introductory astronomy class, according to Prior, many of them to fulfill core requirements. The observatory provides hands-on learning for these students.

And, for physics majors, Prior said, the observatory provides training in how to operate the telescope and manage the facility, which can translate to the working world.

The observatory also has long supported undergraduate and graduate research projects.

With this in mind, Prior said  the new observatory should serve as a recruiting tool for the best and brightest students in the region looking to study physics or astronomy.

“It does draw students, we would expect,” he added.

The new observatory will also be open to the public on Friday nights following the weekly free show in the planetarium, and is likely to continue serving the interests of a local amateur astronomy club, as well as other public events.

Prior said he’s hoping the new observatory will be complete by the end of the year, though there are always caveats for construction timelines.

“That’s my expectation,” he added.