UM celestial observatory to open in the spring

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 15, 2007

By Catherine Legg / Guest Columnist

The University of Montevallo’s James Wylie Shepherd Observatory, built on UM property about three miles from the main campus, might be completed as soon as next year.

Dr. Michael Sterner and Dr. Michael Patton, with support from UM President Philip Williams, are steering the project. Sterner said completion of the first phase of the 10-year project is expected to be completed in the spring of 2008.

Williams also said the observatory will be a state-of-the-art facility; the first phase will consist of a Meade 20-inch RCX400 Advanced Ritchey-Chretien telescope housed in a 15′ diameter observatory dome and aperture, and accommodate about 12 people.

“The dome and scope are outfitted for fully remote operation via broadband Internet connection,” Williams said.

The foundation for the observatory is being donated and built by local contractor Tim Small.

The observatory will offer free viewings and lectures to the public once it is opened, and be available to schools for field trips.

The facility will also be able to contribute to research projects with other observatories.

The long range plan, assisted by James Bilbro, a former chief technologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, calls for the complex to include a classroom, planetarium and amphitheater.

The primary donor, James Shepherd of Shepherd Realty in Birmingham, is also very involved in the progress of the project. The observatory is named for Shepherd’s father who has had a lifelong interest in astronomy.

The idea of the observatory originated with Sterner and Patton, who several years ago, discovered their common interest in astronomy.

Sterner, a mathematics professor and Patton, a professor of philosophy, have taught at UM for eight years and recently began non-traditional interdisciplinary honors course in astronomy and formed the UM Astronomy Club.

The enthusiastic response they received to these undertakings encouraged them to begin working toward the ultimate goal of establishing the observatory.

The cost of the core observatory and the goal for fundraising is $100,000. Currently more than one-half of this goal has been met. Those interested in making a contribution to the project should direct their gift to the University of Montevallo Foundation, Station 6215, Montevallo, AL, 35115, and write “UM Observatory Project” in the memo line.

Anyone interested in joining or receiving the emails from the UM Astronomy Club can reach Michael Sterner at 665-6493 or

Catherine Legg can be reached at