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.
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|
|The telescope... 134 years old|
|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.
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.