Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Day 59 - Washburn Observatory

I have never been to an observatory. Although I have dreamed about looking upon the stars through a massive telescope since I was a child, I never took the time to see if doing so was possible for everyday people. In fact, years ago I had written off the occurrence as out of reach given I thought the handling of such intricate and expensive equipment was left exclusively to highly trained scientists. Without proximity to any sort of observatory for the majority of my life, this belief became engrained in my mind as I grew older; even after moving to Madison and becoming aware of an observatory on the local university campus. In turn, throughout my life I have satisfied my desires to learn about the stars through books, documentaries, infrequent visits to planetariums, and periodic opportunities to use low-powered telescopes to gaze skyward.

I figured this would remain my only access to the stars throughout my life until I started planning my “I have never...” journey. As I started making my list of things I have never done Rachael made me aware of potential public viewing sessions at the local Washburn Observatory. At first skeptical about the ability to use the observatory’s telescope, I excitedly began researching the topic and found that the observatory hosted routine open houses during which members of the public could view the stars with the guidance of astronomy graduate students. Excited by the discovery, I immediately began planning my visit to the observatory. After several instances of bad weather delayed my visit to the facility, tonight’s clear skies provided the first opportunity I had to visit the observatory since turning 30. As a result, Rachael and I headed to the university campus at 9:00 tonight for our first look at the stars through an observatory telescope.

Washburn Observatory

We arrived at the observatory as dusk faded to darkness over Lake Mendota. Traffic was noticeably concentrated around the observatory, which rested atop a well-manicured grassy hill. Although the building was clearly well maintained, the observatory’s heavy stone walls and weathered dome showed its age and added a touch of character that can only be found in architecture from decades past. As Rachael and I approached the walk leading up to the observatory, we maneuvered past a disorganized crowd of people taking in the sight of the building’s exterior and excitedly chatted about the upcoming experience.

Above the entrance
After a few minutes attempting to sort out how to gain access to the building, we found a small walkway leading to an open door on the building’s back wall. With people periodically passing through the door, soft yellow light streamed out onto surfaces quickly becoming consumed by the burgeoning darkness. We continued toward the door alongside a few other observatory visitors, eventually climbing the steps before the door. Encouraged by the sight of other visitors walking into the building without pause, Rachael and I entered the observatory and began climbing a set of old, wooden stairs that wound higher into the building. After several flights we reached a small platform with a small white door cracked open on the right wall. Anticipating we were near the observatory dome, Rachael and I walked toward the door and slowly pulled it open. There, just beyond the door rested we saw a small group of people gathered around a massive green cylinder in the center of a wide circular room. Realizing we found the observatory, Rachael and I walked through the doorway and prepared ourselves to take in the sights of the heavens.

The telescope... 134 years old
Once inside the orbital room, Rachael and I took a position near the base of the towering telescope. The piece of equipment climbed high into the dome and rested at a steep angle pointing toward a narrow opening in the roof. I stood in awe of the device as I looked over the various eye pieces jutting from its base and observed the silently spinning gyroscope resting behind a window in its base. Still lost in the sight before me, I slowly became aware of a pair of graduate students, Andrew and Erin, casually preparing the telescope and discussing the night’s plans. With more people filtering into the building, the two fielded questions and laid out the observation plans for the night. From their discussion, we learned some basic history on the observatory and received details on the plan to observe Saturn and a few star clusters during the evening. Moments after providing this information, Andrew and Erin positioned themselves near at the base of the telescope. Erin grabbed the colossal barrel of the device, moving it with ease as she ascended a wooden staircase along the wall of the round room. The telescope glided along with the movement of one of her hands as she positioned it at a little more than a 45 degree angle. With the room now packed with people, Andrew and Erin worked over the sound of the crowd, ultimately finding Saturn in the depths of the night sky.

Getting the telescope ready

With the telescope locked on Saturn, Andrew turned off the lights and gathered the crowd’s attention. He explained visitors would be able to see the planet and three of its moons clearly through the telescope and proceeded to give direction as to how the observation would work. Andrew quickly advised the people before him to ascend to the telescope’s eye piece one at a time. Over the next 30 minutes groups of children and adults worked their way to the base of the wooden staircase and climbed to the telescope one at a time. Rachael and I waited patiently for an opportunity to approach, eventually finding our way to the staircase after the crowd had dissipated to roughly half its peak size. Rachael was first to climb the stairs, taking about 30 seconds to peer through the telescope. After completing her viewing, she came back down to my side and said, “You can see it all... It looks fake...” as if trying to absorb what she had just seen. Excited, I waited for two more people to climb to the eye piece before I ascended for my first look through an observatory telescope. Taking my position on the staircase, I grabbed the eye piece in my right hand and slowly eased my eye toward the viewfinder.

I moved within inches of the viewfinder’s glass surface before I noticed bright white figures coming into view. With my face nearly touching the rim of the viewfinder, the familiar form of Saturn came into view. Although devoid of color, the planets large surface, trademark angled rings, and moons were clearly visible through the telescope. They appeared as though they could be plucked out of the air in front of me and placed in my hand. It was an unbelievable sight that I found hard to absorb. A planet more than 800 times larger than Earth was suspended in the sky and appeared no larger than a marble. Like Rachael had told me moments earlier, the whole thing look fake, but its beauty was undeniable.

The gyroscope
After taking in the sight of Saturn for about a half of a minute I climbed back down the staircase and met Rachael. We talked about our experience briefly before a group of our friends greeted us in the crowd. As a part of the people that attend the evening’s early Concerts on the Square event with us, they became curious about the experience and decided to surprise us with a visit. Rachael and I talked with them as they waited in line to see Saturn after the remaining crowd. After some short conversation, I decided I was going to explore the remaining part of the observatory, which prompted me to head to the back of the room. There I found a small screen door leading to a platform wrapping around the exterior of the building. Exiting to the balcony, I spent several minutes looking over Lake Mendota and taking in the sounds of the night. I thought about the polarity of my observatory experience at that moment. Beneath me, the sounds of crickets resting on the smallest blades of grass emanated into the air around the old stone building behind me. Inside that building I was able to see into the stars and observe an infinite number of massive suns, planets, and galaxies cast across the universe. From that, I attempted to wrap my mind around how the smallest things in my world met the expanse of space through the telescope in the room at my back. That thought made me feel small, but the feeling was somehow comforting as I took in the sights around me.

Eventually snapping out of my contemplative state, I returned to the observatory interior just in time to say goodbye to our friends that had stopped by. With the crowd now down to a handful of people, Andrew and Erin gave visitors a last chance to observe Saturn before beginning the process to shift the telescope for the next point of observation. Andrew explained the duo’s next target was the Messier 13 Great Globular Cluster in the constellation Hercules. Acknowledging no one in attendance understood the stellar feature he was discussing, Andrew proceeded to explain the cluster was a dense concentration of stars in a small patch of space. Erin helped fill in some of the cluster’s specifics as Andrew worked diligently to find the stars, stating the telescope would be able to fix on a grouping of over 300,000 stars packed in the telescope’s 15.7 inch aperture. As Erin continued explaining some the cluster’s specifics Andrew honed in on the object, manipulating the horizontal position of the dome and steepening the angle of the telescope. Eventually reaching an angle that left him crouching on the floor to look through the viewfinder, Andrew’s pace quickened and he enthusiastically slapped a button on the base of the telescope. “That means he found something!” Erin told the crowd as she walked over to Andrew’s position. “It’s M13,” Andrew replied as he adjusted the telescope and took a step back.

Getting ready for the star cluster

With the telescope fixed on the star cluster, Andrew invited the few remaining visitors in the observatory to kneel and observe the star cluster. Rachael and I took our position in line behind a small group of people, which gave us quick access to the telescope. After the group completed their observation, Rachael directed me to view the cluster through the telescope first. In turn, I approached the telescope and knelt on the floor. With the viewfinder awkwardly pointing toward the floor, I angled my head to gain a good viewing position. One again forcing my face near the rim of the eye piece, thousands of white points punching through an endless black surface came into view. The star cluster was compact, yet each star stood out as a distinct point in space. There were so many stars I shifted my eye around the surface of the tiny viewfinder in an effort to take them all in. The beauty of the sight before me kept me fixated for nearly a minute before I backed away from the telescope and rose to my feet. Still staring at the viewfinder in front of me, I said, “I can’t believe that” as I took a few small steps backward. With anticipation Rachael approached and took in the same view of the Messier 13 cluster, ultimately rejoining me after her view. “It is pretty unbelievable” she said walking to my side.

Still in awe, I stood for a few moments longer before Rachael and I started making our way out of the observatory. As we walked through the quiet space around the building I listened to the night sounds around us. Periodically, Rachael and I traded thoughts on the experience as we walked back to our car, recalling the feelings of disbelief we felt in response to the views of space. On the ride home my mind moved to thoughts of the experience as a whole. I worked through the details of the observatory, the conversations, and the sights that made up the evening as I retraced the experience from start to finish. Drawing from my lifelong dreams to experience an observatory, I realized tonight’s “I have never…” event was everything I could have hoped it could be. I did something I have never done before, visited a historical monument, achieved a goal I previously thought impossible, and saw the heavens in ways I never thought possible. I could have hoped for nothing else from an experience I will likely never forget.

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