Throwback Thursday – The Bell Observatory: When the Space Race came to Bowling Green

Last summer, Western Kentucky University’s Bell Observatory received a National Science Foundation grant to replace its telescope and control system. The space race age had its impact on WKU and Warren County over 50 years ago. Did you know WKU has had an off-site radio observatory since the late 1960s? This is the story of the Bell Observatory.

The WKU radio astronomy program began in 1967, at the request of the new Physics and Astronomy department head, Frank Six. He had been working on projects at the University of Florida, focusing on Jupiter’s low-frequency radiation, and working in conjunction with other astronomy students in Florida and Chile in South America. 

The first official WKU radio observatory was in the Alvaton area on farm land, operating by 1969. Mother Nature was harsh, destroying it in a flood in June of that year. It was rebuilt and moved to a farm donated by Judge Executive Charles Bell around 1976, about 12 miles southwest of Bowling Green. Taking nearly 10 years to complete, functioning by 1987.

Ever since, the Bell Observatory has been mostly student-run and researched. The observatory has a telescope and an astronomical imaging system. According to its website, it operates nearly every clear night, tracking data and images for studies. Why does it operate so far from campus and the heart of the city? Light pollution. The Bell Observatory can’t track accurate space images against the brightness of Bowling Green’s light pollution.

The $300 thousand National Science Foundation grant to upgrade the telescope in the observatory announced last summer has been the biggest update its seen in decades. The new telescope is powerful enough to study black holes in distant galaxies. The grant was secured through a partnership with six other Kentucky institutions, who will all use it for astronomy curricula.