Hesje Observatory reaches for the stars with the help of successful crowdfunding campaign

Throughout the month of June, the Hesje Observatory raised $20,000 for equipment from the support of generous Augustana students, staff, faculty and alumni and community members.

Tia Lalani - 17 August 2021

The Hesje Observatory一launched in January of this year at Augustana’s Miquelon Lake Research Station一will soon be able to add a high-tech digital camera and photometric filters to their instrumentation, all thanks to the generous support of University of Alberta Augustana Campus students, staff, faculty members, alumni and friends and local community members through a recent crowdfunding campaign

“This campaign was fantastic,” explained professor Peter Berg, chair of the science department at Augustana and one of the main drivers一alongside Augustana professors Glynnis Hood and Gerhard Lotz, and station research assistant, Rae Metrunec一behind both the observatory project and the crowdfunding initiative. “We had over 60 donors in the end, which was way more than I expected. And it wasn’t just me and Gerhard as physicists interested in supporting the observatory, but all kinds of people who are really excited about it.”

A cosmic vision

The observatory began with a desire to bolster university and community education and broaden students’ minds plus a generous donation from Augustana (then Camrose Lutheran College) alumnus Brian Hesje. While his donation allowed for the observatory to be built (including classroom space, dome, observation deck, one permanently mounted telescope and one portable telescope), the crowdfunding campaign helped to add a few finishing touches.

“It just so happens that in a project of this scale, you can fine tune at the end,” explained professor Berg. “Once you have it up and running you can purchase the exact equipment that you need.”

And that’s precisely what the observatory did after reaching their $20,000 goal in a mere month. The first item on the list was a charged-coupled device (CCD) camera made specifically for larger telescopes like the mounted model in the observatory. The camera will delight both students and members of the public by allowing them to capture beautiful images of the night sky as well as providing the opportunity to take precise light measurements to support astronomical research.

The second piece of equipment includes an electronic filter wheel and a set of photometric filters that will also allow researchers to take measurements of light from stars or other objects in space, which can provide information on composition, structure, temperature, distance and age.

This experience-enhancing equipment was made possible by donations that came from different sources and in varied amounts. 

“Although we received a number of larger donations, there were many that were in much smaller amounts. I would tell everyone that even five dollars is helpful,” said professor Berg. “That’s the beauty of crowdfunding一all contributions make a difference, no matter the size. It’s great to be a part of something like this.”

Professor Berg appreciated that donations came not just from members of the science department at Augustana, but from across the campus and community members as well. 

“Many people left comments about how excited they are about the facility, which means a lot because it shows that it really is a space for all of Augustana, and for the community,” professor Berg said. 

Rae Metrunec, research assistant with the observatory, echoed this notion. “This observatory is for everyone一including the public一to explore,” she said. “It’s not just for one researcher to sit in. That’s what Brian [Hesje] wanted一he wants people to be able to come in here, and to look and to think一and that’s what we’re trying to make happen. The crowdfunding helped to put us out there a little bit further. We just want to get more people excited about astronomy.” 

A photo of Rae Metrunec alongside the mounted telescope within the observatory.
Rae Metrunec, station research assistant, alongside the 17" Corrected Dal-Kirkham telescope which will be bolstered by the new CCD camera, electronic filter wheel and photometric filters purchased through the crowdfunding campaign. (Photo: Donahue Productions)

Stellar support

The excitement already seems to exist in good measure一something that professor Berg has noted since the opening of the observatory, which received over 500 online attendees and plenty of media coverage. 

“To me, there are two ways to respond to observing space: it can either get you down一because  life may appear somewhat meaningless on this little spec here in the vastness of the universe一or you can be fascinated and amazed by it,” professor Berg shared. “It’s best not to think about it the first way, obviously, although it can happen. But interestingly, it doesn’t seem to happen to most people. Maybe people want to think there’s something greater out there. Perhaps, the regular motion of celestial bodies provides a sense of order in our chaotic lives. ”

For Metrunec, the excitement lies in being able to engage Augustana students in astronomy. 

“It’s something I’ve always been a little bit interested in,” Metrunec explained. “Taking math and physics at Augustana was the closest thing to that area of study at the time. But then Peter asked if I would be interested in becoming a research assistant for the observatory and I had to hold back my excitement. Now other Augustana students will be able to pursue astronomy thanks to Brian and this campaign.”

The Hesje Observatory hopes to provide public programming and access to Augustana students, staff and faculty members this Fall. Please continue to check their website for more information. If you would like to provide further support to the Hesje Observatory, you can Give to Augustana online or contact the Augustana Advancement office