About 700 Yale students spent part of Saturday night under the stars on Cross Campus, waiting up to two and a half hours to see Mars through the University’s high-powered telescopes.
One Astronomy professor, three graduate students and two undergraduates staffed the event, which was meant to allow students to see the Red Planet one week after its closest proximity to the earth in nearly 60,000 years. Under a cloudless night sky, students lined up to look through a 12-inch telescope aimed at Mars and two 8-inch telescopes, one of which was aimed at Mars and later at Alberio, a binary star system with one bright blue star and one orange star. The third telescope allowed gazers to view the moon.
For most of the night, a line of students snaked around Cross Campus in a nearly full circle. Some students played frisbee in line, while astronomy students and a professor passed out Milky Way and Starburst candies to waiting students and answered questions about the solar system.
A second telescope session was held Sunday night to accomodate the high demand.
The next time Earth will be so close to Mars will be Aug. 28, 2287.
Astronomy professor Sean O’Brien, who ran the event, said he was impressed by the turnout.
Sander Daniels ’05 said he had “tons of fun” waiting in line to see Mars, but when he got to the telescope, he said what he saw was “pretty unimpressive.”
“But I came away very happy because it was a beautiful night,” Daniels said.
O’Brien said viewing planets with telescopes can be underwhelming for people who do not know what to expect. He said the images of outer space people are used to seeing, such as those from the Hubble space telescope, are often clearer and more detailed than what can be observed from the Earth.
“What they saw [Saturday] night was the real thing,” O’Brien said. “And that’s special.”
O’Brien and his fellow organizers originally planned to stay with the telescopes from 10 p.m. until midnight, but the event’s popularity inspired them to start before 9:30 and end at about 2 a.m. Astronomy major Brendan Cohen ’05, who helped run the event, said organizers decided to stay as long as interested students were in line. They also held another viewing Sunday night starting at about 9:30 p.m.
Cohen said he was encouraged by the turnout, as well as the number of students who signed up for more information about restarting the Astronomy Club.
“We’re going to try to do [events like this] more often,” Cohen said.
Initiatives for the club include planning more University-wide astronomy events on Cross Campus, organizing events for children at the observatory, publicizing city-wide events, making special shuttles available for events such as the monthly Astronomy Department-sponsored public observing night and engaging in other public outreach activities such as classroom visits.
The University is currently constructing a new student observatory next to the Betts House on Prospect Street. The observatory, which O’Brien estimates will be running by late October, will boast two domes. One will house the 12-inch telescope used on Cross-Campus this weekend, and the other will be home to a refurbished 19th century telescope.
Cohen said the Astronomy Department hopes to organize a similar event in February, when Jupiter and Saturn will both be visible in the early evening sky.