Up in the Air

Observatory night: Enjoy evening with the stars

September 15, 2013 

The night was gorgeous!

Dark and clear, the Milky Way stretched across the late-summer sky. This was two Saturdays ago, with our rainy summer having finally turned the corner into a clear streak. After an unprecedented cancellation of two events in a row during our monsoon, we were able to hold our monthly public night at Appalachian State’s Dark Sky Observatory.

The 32-inch telescope’s dome was open and ready, with the eyepiece on for the night. My colleague, David Sitar, had set up another telescope outside, one donated by Charlotte resident Marley Gray. Our department graduate and Appalachian IT guy — and superb amateur astrophotographer – Leander Hutton brought out his Dobsonian telescope and astrocamera setup to share with the crowd. A few students, physics/astronomy majors, were along to help.

The 40 event ticketholders started arriving just after sunset and gathered in the Jo & Don Cline Visitor Center, attached to the 32-inch’s dome, for an evening under the stars. After a short introductory PowerPoint, the crowd split up, with some headed for the big scope, others outside for the smaller ones and to have naked-eye objects pointed out via a green laser pointer.

While awaiting their turns at the eyepiece, some gathered in the control room, a spacious area bristling with computer displays showing the telescope controls, a planetarium-like view of the current sky, an all-sky fish-eye view of the night sky above DSO, and weather info. We discussed the technology of modern telescope control and observing and how we often do it remotely from home over the Internet.

The telescopes go through a menu of several targets, with an opportunity for each visitor to get a view. We start close, with a double-double star a mere 160 light years away, two pairs of stars in centuries-long orbits, the two pairs themselves in an orbit tens of thousands of years long. We move closer, to the Ring Nebula, the remnants of a star that died with a whimper rather than a bang, the same fate our sun will have in a few billion years. Then globular cluster M33, hundreds of old stars in a symmetrical gathering 34,000 light years away but still a member of the Milky Way galaxy. The Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away, is our most distant target. We finish with a bonus object — the planet Neptune.

It was a fantastic evening and a lot of info-fun for all.

If you want to have an evening under the stars, check our website: www.dso.appstate.edu. On Facebook, search for Dark Sky Observatory and “like” us to get announcements.

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: catondb@appstate.edu. More on this month’s column: www.upintheair.info.

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