Public night at the Astronomical Observatory

Last night Keystone College’s Thomas G. Cupillari Astronomical Observatory was open to the public, and so Eliza, Chris, Andrew, and I took the short ride out to take advantage of the exceptionally clear skies. I could not be happier with my decision to go. We had a great time learning about, and gazing at, our solar system’s planets, stars much larger than our own sun, and distant galaxies.

Every Wednesday and Friday from March 12th until May 30th, of this year, the observatory is open to public lectures and viewing sessions. While we were there we were given a ~30-minute lecture about the viewable sky in our hemisphere, the constellations, and some of the quirkiness of star gazing. The lecture was jammed packed with information and I look forward to one day listening to it again, just so I get it all.  After the lecture you are free to use, under the careful observation and help from the staff and volunteers there, the telescopes that the Observatory has in place.  We primarily used four main telescopes while we were there.

The planet Mercury at sunset (just left of center).

Before the lecture, and before we even peered through any telescope, we were able to get a clear glimpse of Mercury, the planet closest to our Sun and only visible during the morning and evening.  An object so clearly visible, yet often overlooked as probably being the first star you can see as the sun sets, yet is actually an entire planet.

After the lecuture, the first telescope we used in the circle-shaped building with a rotating roof, is a telescope built by the firm of Alvan Clark & Sons of Cambridgeport, MA in the late 19th Century.  In 1971 Thomas G. Cupillari bought the telescope from an ex-host of the Today Show on NBC, Dave Garroway, and with a contribution of $5,000 from the Scranton Area Foundation – built the building in which it now sits and is operated.  Focused on Mercury we were able to get a much better look of the atmosphere’s affects on how we see objects in the sky.  Mercury appeared to be a giant rainbow, really a neat looking site.  With a rather swift movement, the gentleman maneuvering the telescope for us, pointed the telescope nearly straight up in the sky.  After adjusting the rotating roof into position, making slight adjustments to the telescope through the finder, he said "Ok, this next thing is a fake.".  I was the first to look through eyepiece when I saw Saturn, complete with its many rings, being displayed as vividly as a photograph in a science book.  With black space and only a few stars surrounding it, it really did look fake.  I was amazed.

The second telescope we used to focus in on Betelgeuse and Mars.  The woman handling this telescope, who also gave the lecture, put me to the task of finding some of these objects.  The telescope were were using was "thrown together" by one of the volunteers using a few old parts of a Meade telescope he had.  I am not sure which parts were original, which parts were modified, but the telescope performed wonderfully.  The view finder (not sure of the technical term) was equipped with an infrared bulls-eye.  Lining it up to an object in the sky could not have been easier.  Mars shown like a jewel in the sky.  It looked like a woman’s ring; diamonds surrounding sapphire.  I can’t describe it any other way.  Saturn appeared much more far away but still just as crisp.

The third and fourth telescopes were in a building with a fully retractable roof.  The one we used most was, I think, a Meade LX200 on some sort of custom fixed mount.  It was operated by remote control and held hundreds of thousands of astronomical objects in its database.  Type in a number, hit enter, and the thing lined itself right up with what you wanted to see.  Using this telescope we focused on entire galaxies, appearing like nothing more than dust in space, which contain billions of stars.  We were also able to see a planetary nebula (described as such because of the relative shape of the nebula, not because the nebula produces planets rather than stars) which had a bright center and a fuzzy aura.

Looking through the Meade LX200 at Mercury.

The fourth telescope was fixed towards the southern sky and, using it, we were able to see a few stars that were "nearing the end of their lives".  The star was bright red, like a distant break light, and was clearly distinguishable from its neighbors (yet you’d never see it with the naked eye).  We used this telescope the least of all.

Below: The main telescope building. Above: Same building from the rear at sunset.


Being clothed in only sweatshirts as the temperature dipped into the low 30s, we had to leave before the sky truly got pitch-black, but I’m looking forward to a return visit in less than two weeks, were we’re encouraged to bring our own telescopes (I have one that I want to learn how to use better).  I can’t tell you how anxious I am to get back out there, prepared with tools and proper clothing, to be up all night and gaze at the stars once again.

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