Astronomers wait for dusk on top of the sledding hill at Centennial Park Wednesday night. Comet Pan-STARRS was difficult to see, but those with telescopes shared the view with anyone who wanted to see it. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register.

Exploring the night sky: the universe is just outside

March 14, 2013 at 10:15 PM
Today, people who want to begin exploring and learning about the cosmos don’t have to do anything much different than our ancestors did.

“With your eye you can see the constellations,” said John Martin, associate professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Illinois Springfield. “On summer nights, it’s fun just to lay on your back and see four to five meteors an hour — even without a meteor shower going on.”

Galileo Galilei was the first to use a telescope to look at the moon and other celestial bodies 400 years ago. He had heard about an invention that made objects appear closer.

That early telescope (really a spyglass) was limited in its magnification, and Galileo modified the invention to magnify 20 times. A good all-purpose pair of binoculars magnifies 10 times.

“Anyone who hasn’t should look at the moon through a pair of binoculars or even under a dark sky,” Martin said. “In a good dark place, you can start cruising around looking at different stars and parts of the sky.”

The waxing crescent moon appears in the western sky Wednesday.

“You don’t have to go real far out side of Springfield to have a dark enough sky to see, clearly,” said Bruce Patterson, president of the Sangamon Astronomical Society. “For example, the SAS has an observing field and observatory 11 miles west of Veterans Parkway just shy of Pleasant Plains. That is dark enough to see clearly the western horizon and sky.

“Now, if you want to look at something in the eastern sky in the early evening, you have the light bubble of Springfield to contend with.”

Those early stargazers didn’t have city lights interfering with the view. They also didn’t have television and the Internet competing for their time.

“Those societies were without electricity, and the night sky was a lot more accessible, noticeable,” Martin said. “They also spent more time outside.”

Even as times change, people still want to learn more about our neighbors in the universe.

“Society and culture changes, but people who like that experience find a way to do it,” he said.

For those looking for a guided tour of the night sky, UIS host Star Parties that resume on Friday nights in April.

And, the SAS will join forces with Martin to celebrate Astronomy Day next month.

“April 20 has been designated as Astronomy Day by the Astronomical League, a collection of amateur astronomy groups,” Patterson said.

“The SAS is planning to have a public event at Southwind Park. We’re going to be out there before dark to set up our scopes so people can come and look at them and ask questions. And we will have some handouts about amateur astronomy.”

After the sun goes down, SAS members will show visitors everything that might elicit an “oooh” or “aaah.”

“The sky charts suggest to me the planet Jupiter will still be visible in the western sky,” Patterson said. “Saturn will be rising in the eastern sky by 8:30 p.m., and the moon will be in crescent phase, which is the optimum time to observe that object.”

One of the most common questions about equipment is, “How much does that thing cost,” Patterson said.

A six-inch simply mounted telescope costs less than $300.

“That size is perfect for a starter scope,” he said.

A more powerful motorized telescope with a hand computer to help locate objects for viewing costs just under $2,000.

Martin and Patterson said all questions are welcome.

“I love the questions,” Martin said. “People come up with the neatest questions. There really is no such thing as a stupid question, and sometimes the embarrassing questions end up being insightful.”

“One person asked me if it rains on the moon,” Patterson said. “Frankly, (when adults are comfortable asking) what might seem to be simplistic questions is one of the good things about doing a public event.

“Because most of those folks wouldn’t feel comfortable asking a university professor something that might sound like a silly question,”

Patterson said. “But we’re just ordinary people so it’s OK to ask simple questions.”

As much as has been learned since Galileo first pointed his homemade telescope toward the sky, there is much left to learn.

“Sometimes I am forced to say I don’t know,” Martin said. “I say we just don’t know the answer.”

Star partiesr

Star Parties are held at the UIS Observatory located on the roof of the Brookens Library.

Star parties resume in April from 8 – 10 p.m. on Friday nights.

Dates are April 5, 12, 19 and 26.

Next fall, star parties will be held Sept. 6, 13, 20, 27 and Oct. 4, 11, 18 and 25.

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Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528. Follow him at