Friday, August 21, 2009

Star gazing with the pros

I don't know why I waited 48 years for my first visit to an observatory, but there you go. With the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory open to the public until August 25th, I figured last night was a good time to go since unlike some people, I didn't have to get up early for work today.

The observatory opened its doors to the public for late night viewing for the first time in its history this week, so I expected big crowds and limited parking. I was wrong about the crowd but right about parking, although the trail leading up to the facility is long and you can park off the trail if you must.

The observatory itself has 3 telescopes under domes. I managed to see two of them, but only one was taking pictures while the other was idle with University staff explained things about what they do there. But the real action was taking place outside, behind the main building, where at least a half dozen telescopes of varying sizes and styles were set up and operated by various knowledgeable people. Each telescope was taking turns focusing on various 'objects of interest' in the sky, including various star clusters, galaxies, nebulae and the planet Jupiter and its moons. There were satellites aplenty and a few remnants of the Perseid meteor shower as well. Aside from having a great view of the night sky, including a good look at the Milky Way, I took the time to learn a bit about the variety of telescope options and was impressed with what I saw and heard.

For the first hour or so that I was there (10pm - 11:30pm), there were around 50 people milling about, so you had to be patient to see everything. But after that the crowd really thinned out to only about 20 or so people, so the pace got much more relaxed. I stayed until 12:30pm even though it's open until 2am. I would have stayed longer, but it got really chilly and I didn't bring a jacket. Plus, I plan on going back with a friend in a few days, so I'll have plenty of opportunity to see more.

All in all, a fantastic experience and I look forward to going again. Here's hoping that the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory does this kind of thing more often.

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