Focused on the cosmos: the Brandeis Astronomy Club

Lachlan Elam ’22 revived the Brandeis Astronomy club and gave his fellow students a new view of the heavens.

A close-up image of a half-full moon

An image of the moon taken from the telescope in Brandeis' observatory.

When Lachlan Elam ’22 was a first-year he knew he wanted to join the Astronomy Club. The observatory dome atop the Abelson Physics Building had caught his eye, but when the club fair rolled around, he couldn’t find a representative.

“Staring at that dome as I walked to class, I was completely entranced and wanted to know what was going on up there,” he said.

As it turned out, not very much at all was going on.

The leadership of the club graduated the year before. There was no one left on campus to represent it.

So, Elam — an applied math major minoring in German and economics — decided to restart the club himself.

“It was hard learning how to work all the equipment. ...I had to teach myself how to function all the equipment in the dome, and how to use them properly and safely,” he said. “Now that I am a senior, I am confident in saying that I have taught myself how to function all the equipment in the dome properly.”

COVID-19 hampered Elam and the “Astro Club” from doing as much as they would have liked last year, but now they are ramping up activities.

The club was scheduled to team up with the Mountain Club to take a hike in western Massachusetts to view a meteor shower earlier in October. Space debris and meteors passed through Earth’s atmosphere this past Friday, and the two clubs were scheduled to go view that amazing show.

Weather hampered those plans on both occasions, but there are plans in place for more future joint meetings. The Astro Club is also planning on teaming up with the Photography Club to take better pictures through the observatory telescope, so be sure to keep an eye out for some cool space pictures as well.

The Astro Club usually holds meetings once a week or once every two weeks depending on the weather. To begin each meeting, Elam calibrates the telescope and meets everyone downstairs. He sees who wants to come up and look through the telescope, finds out what those people want to see and aims the telescope at those objects.

“We pretty much just look at things. Lately, Saturn and Jupiter have been really good viewing objects,” he said. “Lots of people have been requesting to see the Andromeda Galaxy lately as well.”

Membership in the club is about as casual as it gets.

“We here at Astro Club are scared of commitment. I don't knight you or sign you into a chapter or anything. You can show up whenever you want and you don't need to go to every single meeting either,” Elam said. “If you are free and want to show up feel free to show up, if you are unavailable it is not a big deal at all. Feel free to check if I’m in the dome, so if the door is unlocked you can join me and look at anything you want.”

Those who come can see some incredible sights. The clouds on Jupiter. A red spot on Mars that’s a storm that’s raged for 350 years. The craters of the moon. The Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 landed.

“It’s cathartic, it's like a deep calling,” Elam said. “It's crazy to see something that you know is the furthest thing you will ever see in your life.”

One of Elam’s favorite club memories is seeing the Blood Moon of January 20, 2019, from the observatory, both because of the spectacular phenomena and because of how much the club’s popularity had grown.

“We got a huge amount of people that night, probably 50-60 people coming in and out as the night went on,” he recalled. “It was incredible to watch and I am so glad all those people enjoyed watching it.”

As Elam’s time on campus nears its end, he hopes the Astro Club can find a way to carry on.

“I would like to form some sort of E-Board (executive board), so no one else runs into the same situation I found when I began it,” he said. I would also like to pass on my knowledge so it is much easier for people to learn how to use the equipment rather than learning through trial and error like myself.”

Below are photos that were taken in the observatory and through its telescope, along with anecdotes from club members on their experiences.

A distant image of jupiter

Jupiter seen through the telescope in Brandeis' observatory.

Mark Rozencwaig '23

“The first time I went to the dome, I saw Jupiter through a telescope for the first time. I was also able to see four of Jupiter’s moons. It's inspiring to be able to contextualize myself and our planet and to see things that I’ve maybe heard or read about before, or looked at pictures of. It’s different saying 'oh Saturn’s got rings' but to actually look yourself and see it for yourself, it’s not someone telling you about it, like I'm telling you about it. There's also just fun exciting things like one time I was there when Lachlan was trying the range of a telescope during the day like looking at Boston, and you can literally see the 'P' in the Prudential Building, like big and up-close.”

Lachlan Elam '22 with telescope in the observatory of the Abelson Physics Building

Lachlan Elam '22 adjusts the telescope.

Cole Nelson '23

“I found it fascinating how Lachlan had to keep moving the telescope throughout the meeting. Even though we were looking at the same spot he had to move the telescope every so often to keep up with the rotation of the Earth. I had never really thought about that, but it was a grounding experience altogether. It was also so crazy to see something that I know is massive and huge and that I knew existed before, but to know I was looking at actual Saturn really put things in perspective for me. Like I’m not looking at a picture of Saturn — I am looking at actual Saturn as it exists right now.”

close-up of an Apollo-Soyuz sticker on a piece of equipment in the Brandeis observatory.

A sticker from the time of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz space mission.

Astrid Schneider '23

“You can find little clues of things and details of what people left behind in the observatory. It's a shame more people don't know more about it but it's so cool to know about it. I'm so glad I know about it. You get kind of this independent experience of being able to look through the telescope and see things like without a professor there. You get to actually appreciate what college can bring you. It's such a cool experience to have with your friends.”

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