Saturday, April 9, 2011

Taking a peek into the past... by simply looking to the skies

- 17. Go stargazing with a star map and find 5 constellations (Complete!)

Vanderbilt owns a lot of neat things around the community. One of those “neat things” is the Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory. Although the observatory offers a lot of public programs, on the second Friday of every month in the spring/summer/fall they present “Open Telescope Night.” Much like an open house, astronomers and astrophysicists are on hand to answer questions while you take a look at the stars and planets through one of their three large telescopes. It is free to the public, but reservations are required and book up several months in advance. 

One of the Telescopes!

Taking a peek at the moon... also got to see Saturn and a star on Orion's belt. (Why do I keep thinking of Men in Black when I hear that??)

We couldn’t have asked for a better night to take a gander at the sky. With minimal clouds, a light breeze, and temps in the 70’s - it was perfect weather to peruse the star library inside or traipse around on the rock covered roof to look at the constellations and wait in line for the telescopes. So I have to admit, I had forgotten my constellation book at home and was worried I wouldn’t actually complete my goal. Thanks to the Observatory, however, I was handed a “Sky Report” for the day which gave a planet guide (with times and locations), a list of spring constellations, a list of all the constellations including nicknames and time of year to find them, and a list of stars closest to our sun. So neat!!!

A constellation globe!

The Library - the room was actually filled with books

So for all of you wondering… the five constellations we found (with the help of one of Vanderbilt’s astronomy professors and his super duper, and probably illegal, green laser) were…

  1. Orion and his belt (which also included the red star Betelgeuse on his “shoulder.”)
  2. Big Dipper
  3. Hydra
  4. Perseus
  5. Leo
Going to the Dyer Observatory was such a fascinating and eye opening experience. The volunteers (from Vandy) were very, VERY smart and informative… as well as patient – when I asked them a gazillion questions. (Hey – that’s what they are there for – right?!?) We met an astronomer, Jen, who is in graduate school at Vandy for astrophysics. During the half hour of talking with her one on one, I learned that her two pet peeves were asking if she was astrologer and if the world would end in 2012. I laughed with her as how silly a person has to be to get those two confused… and who would think the world was going to end. Goodness! (Yeah, thank goodness she didn’t know that it was about 50/50 when I choose to ask if she was an astronomer… AND that she brought up her pet peeves before I asked about 2012.)

I did ask her about whether she thought we have had visitors from beyond our planet. Jen said that although we would be ignorant to think that there isn’t life out there, she does not believe that they have visited. Quoting a famous astrophysicist (sorry, I can’t remember his name) she said that to travel thousands of light years on a chance you might run in to other life would simply be “a waste of space.” Interesting. She said that those unexplained occurrences that we think are aliens might actually be earthlings visiting us from the future. More of a chance of that. Very interesting.

Other fascinating things we discovered at the Observatory…

-          We got to see an air force prototype of a “space plane.” I would have thought it was a shooting star, but the astronomers said otherwise.
-          When we look at the sky, we are viewing the past. Light can only travel so fast, so some of what we see has occurred thousands of years ago... and those stars might not exist anymore.
-          The North Star is always in line with a side of the “pot” of the big dipper. It was so much easier to find after that!
-          Our galaxy can collide with another and it “probably” wouldn’t affect us. (Side note – “By the time that happens, the Sun would already be gone.”)
-          There is an application called “Star Walk” (that all of the staff had on their handy iphones) and uses GPS to tell you the constellations that are currently visible. From what I understand, you can hold up the phone to the sky and it will highlight the constellations from the stars that you are seeing. NEAT!!

If you live in the Nashville area… I would definitely recommend taking a trip!!

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