Univ. offers the chance to see stars

While Yalies will wait for hours to catch a glimpse of stars like Uma Thurman, few realize the University offers other opportunities for gazing at heavenly bodies — ones that don’t go out of style with next month’s People.

Continuing a tradition dating back to the 1950s, the Astronomy Department holds public observing nights every first and third Thursday at the Leitner Family Observatory. These bimonthly events allow the public to gratify their yen for star-gazing with Yale’s historical telescopes — two large, permanently-mounted telescopes and five to six smaller instruments. The telescopes provide views of a host of astronomical objects, including the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, and nearby star clusters and galaxies, as weather permits.

Yale’s Astronomy Department holds bimonthly observing nights, giving the public the chance to make use of the telescopes at the Leitner Family Observatory.
Blair Benham-Pyle
Yale’s Astronomy Department holds bimonthly observing nights, giving the public the chance to make use of the telescopes at the Leitner Family Observatory.

“The sessions are a way to share astronomy with others, to get people excited about it,” said Hugh Crowl, a post-doctoral associate in the Department of Astronomy and the coordinator of the public viewing nights. “It’s also really rewarding for us to really be able to inspire others to develop an interest and love of astronomy … I really love looking at the sky, and it’s satisfying to see others enjoy it.”

Public lectures conducted by department faculty precede the first session each month, aiming to generate thought on a variety of astronomy-related issues. The lecture upcoming in the first week of March is titled “Astronomy at the Movies,” with the tongue-in-cheek subheading, “A parsec is a unit of distance, not time, you nitwit!”

Crowl conducted this month’s lecture, which was on how galaxies form — “a very deep question that nobody quite knows the answer to,” he said.

Michael Faison, astronomy professor and director of the Leitner Observatory, said the informational nature of viewing nights reflects their role as a resource for community members. Graduate students are stationed beside the telescope to guide viewers and field their questions, and the lectures enable visitors to learn about developments in the astronomical field, Faison said.

“A lot of people are compelled by astronomy,” Faison said. “They want to know: Is there life on other planets? … Why isn’t Pluto a planet? It’s crucial for the Department to provide a vehicle for people to ask these questions of us.”

Faison added that the viewing nights also serve a practical purpose for astronomy students, since several courses, including “Introduction to Astronomical Observing” and “Research Methods: Astrophysics,” have mandatory observing components.

“I really believe in hands-on science education,” Faison said. “People learn the best when they can do something for themselves. It’s a much richer learning experience when you can prove to yourself, using a telescope, that certain stars have certain characteristics.”

Apart from these bimonthly viewing nights, the Department also opens the Leitner Observatory for specific celestial events, including passing comets, meteor showers, and solar and lunar eclipses. Faison said that March is likely to feature a lunar eclipse, and August and November will bring meteor showers.

The Leitner Observatory’s two main telescopes, which are used for observational rather than research purposes, are a 16-inch modern reflecting telescope that Yale purchased less than a year ago and an eight-inch refracting telescope that has been in use since 1882.

The eight-inch telescope is, according to Faison, literally “a piece of history.” It was instrumental in helping 19th-century Yale astronomers use the celebrated passage of Venus in front of the Sun to triangulate distance between the Sun and Earth.

Crowl explained that the telescopes do not work by magnifying far-off objects, but rather by collecting large amounts of light over an extended period of time.

“It’s similar to taking an extended exposure photograph,” he said. “The telescope catches more light than your eye can, so we can see fainter things.”

Public response to the program, according to Crowl, has consistently been positive. The turnout on a given night ranges from 15 to upwards of 70 attendees of all ages, he said.

Ilana Yurkiewicz ’10, who attended a viewing night last semester, said the session was well-organized and staffed with people “very willing to help and share at length their own experiences.”

“I’d never seen the craters on the moon so vividly or up close before,” she said. “It’s incredible that Yale offers us this opportunity — that too, free of charge.”

Faison said the organizers publicize the program on a relatively small scale because the facility would not be able to handle a group much larger than the one it already attracts.

Still, the Leitner Observatory — located on 355 Prospect Street — is “a definite step above the facility we had before,” Faison said. The viewing nights were moved in 2003 from the Pierson-Sage Parking Garage to their current location, where the trees in Farnham Garden block much of New Haven’s light pollution.

Faison said an upcoming expansion for the Leitner Observatory will facilitate more frequent and varied public events. The Department is currently adding a digital planetarium with a 30-foot diameter dome to the observatory, which Faison said will be used to host programs even when low visibility prevents viewing. The planetarium, which will be the first digital planetarium in the state, is targeted for completion by 2008.

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