Observatory assistants operate three telescopes in front of Cal Poly Observatory’s dome. Credit: Courtesy of Nathalia de Souza

Tucked away within the U-shaped design of the Science building (52) is Cal Poly’s Observatory. Just a peek at the dome-shaped roof is an indicator of the powerful telescopes used to gaze at Jupiter’s Galilean moons, stellar nurseries and the billions of stars within our galaxy.

Every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 7 to 8 p.m., weather permitting, the Cal Poly Observatory hosts observation nights. These are run entirely by students, who serve as observatory assistants. 

Aerospace engineering senior Nathalia de Souza is one of only four student observatory assistants. 

“This job definitely gives me a little bit of a big head,” de Souza said. “You know, it’s not every day that you can say, ‘Oh, my job is looking at the stars and the planets.”

The observatory assistants are responsible for every component of the public observation nights. This includes setting up equipment, planning lessons regarding the night’s featured celestial objects and answering visitor questions. 

“The observatory assistants are the ones running the show,” faculty advisor of the observatory assistants Vardha Bennert said. “The public observing nights would not be happening without them.”  

These student assistants embody passion for astronomy, according to de Souza. 

“When I first watched the movie, WALL-E, I knew I wanted to be an astronaut that doesn’t go into space,” de Souza said. “That meant to me I was going to know anything and everything there is to know about it.”

De Souza admits she doesn’t know everything, but continues to grow her knowledge everyday. One of her favorite ways to become more familiar with space is consuming any material regarding the subject. She highly recommends the Pale Blue Pod podcast and the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

De Souza embraces her role as an observatory assistant by sharing her knowledge with others during observation nights and improving her skills as a “science communicator.” 

“I really encourage people to ask all of the questions that have been stuck in their brains since childhood about space,” de Souza said. “It’s really nice to be sort of the first point of contact for helping people become closer to their full understanding of astronomy.” 

Alongside de Souza, physics junior Samantha Allen is also an observation assistant. Allen enjoys leading observation nights alongside her co-workers. 

“Every observatory assistant brings something different to the table,” Allen said. “Everyone has their strong suits and their strengths, and I feel like I’m very loud, always joking, and my goal is to make the observatory a fun night.”

Observation nights are open to the entire San Luis Obispo community, but most nights, assistants typically host around 20 Cal Poly students enrolled in astronomy courses. These are students enrolled in Introduction to the Stars and Galaxies System and Introduction to the Solar System. 

Allen never misses the chance to feature a planet during observation nights for students. 

“I love showing off the planets, especially if we can highlight Saturn,” said Allen. “It’s great to hear the excitement of all the students saying ‘Oh my gosh, it looks like an emoji’ when they see its rings.”  

At the observatory, what might look like a tiny, smeared star in the sky can quickly transform into Orion Nebula with a telescope. 

“When you look at Orion’s Nebula through a telescope, it becomes an amazing green and blue cloud of dust and hot gas,” Allen said.

Caption: Earth’s moon is projected onto a piece of paper with the LX600 telescope. / Credit: Courtesy of Samantha Allen

Among the instruments the public has the opportunity to use during observation nights is the 14-inch Meade LX600 ACF telescope. Unlike an ordinary telescope, the ACF is an impressive $10,000 piece of astronomical technology equipped with top-of-the-line optics meant to provide a high-contrast view of celestial objects. 

Observation assistants make sure every observation night teaches visitors more than the mathematics and science behind space. Within their lessons, assistants guide visitors through the cultural stories hidden in the constellations of the night sky.

“Constellations are the byproduct of cultures trying to tell their own stories using the stars in the sky,” de Souza said. “In our observation nights, it is really important to highlight stories beyond just European cultures like the Greeks or Romans.” 

One of the most culturally-rich celestial objects the observation assistants highlight to visitors is a cluster of stars known as the Pleiades. Different cultures tell different stories of the constellation’s origins. 

In Greek mythology, Pleiades refers to the seven daughters of the Titan Atlas, who eventually formed the constellation, commonly referred to as the Seven Sisters. 

The latest cultural story observatory assistants have incorporated into their observing nights is of Native American descent. A Cherokee legend of Pleiades depicts the cluster of stars as brothers, who danced away into the sky as they prayed for spirits to prevent them from disappointing their mothers. 

“I really enjoy incorporating this twist on the story,” de Souza said. 

Cal Poly Observatory’s Instagram posts infographics about how ancient and prehistoric civilizations understood the sky and the impact of their culture for those looking to learn more. 

This quarter, math sophomore Maya Seagraves has made two trips to the Cal Poly Observatory. She found the observatory assistants to be very knowledgeable in regards to the celestial bodies shared throughout the night. 

“It was a really wonderful and fun experience,” Seagraves said. “To witness stars, planets, and nebulas in beautiful detail reminded me that although humanity has taken leaps and bounds in the field of astronomy, we know so little of the universe and there is so much more to explore.” 

For those hoping to attend an observation night, the observatory’s website is updated 30 minutes before each session to reflect if the viewing will be canceled or proceed as usual. 

It’s not just students who are invited to attend, Allen encourages the San Luis Obispo community to visit. 

“Being able to have that experience of visiting us at the observatory and using our telescopes to have an awesome resolution of the sky is definitely worth an hour of your time,” Allen said.