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Out of this world

April 6, 2006

After the sun had set and the day’s classes had concluded at UW-River Falls, students, staff and members of the community focused their gaze on the night sky during the physics department’s observatory viewing session on the third floor of Centennial Science Hall (CSH).

“You can see the rings and everything,” an elderly viewer said, coaxing her companion to go look through the telescope on the observatory deck to get a glimpse of Saturn during the March 28 viewing session.

Mars and Saturn were both visible in the night sky, and through the use of telescopes, Saturn’s rings and the shadows they created were very distinct.

“That’s pretty badass,” said crop and soil major Derek Waldera, after looking through the telescope at the ringed planet.

Several other viewers enjoyed the chance to see Saturn through one of the two 12-inch Meade LX200 telescopes set up on the observatory deck. Both of these telescopes have 25-inch optical tubes and are controlled by remotes, which adjust the telescopes to view hundreds of thousands of celestial objects stored in memory.

“My favorite part of the experience was seeing Saturn up close and being able to see its rings. I just thought that was the coolest part overall,” said Sara Ehlenz, a student in Basic Astronomy (Physics 117). “I also liked the overview of the stars and constellations in the beginning by one of the professors.”

Many students who are enrolled in the Basic Astronomy course offered by the physics department were able to understand the information from class and get a more hands-on feel for what they are learning.

“The coolest thing about going to the observatory is using the information you learned in class, seeing how it really works instead of just listening to it in a lecture,” teacher education major Katie Kawalek said.

During the sessions, stargazers are encouraged to participate in the experience by requesting certain stellar objects to view. Physics professors and students are on hand to adjust the telescopes and answer questions.

Astronomy professor Matt Vonk operated the 16-inch Meade LX200GPS Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. The computer-controlled telescope with a 33-inch tube is housed under the dome of the observatory. During the night, Vonk focused the telescope on several objects, including open clusters, groups of a few thousand stars, and globular clusters, collections of hundreds of thousands of stars that orbit a galaxy.

“The greatest part was the globular cluster,” basic astronomy student William Larson said. “It was neat to know that we could see things in such detail even though they are so far away.”

The physics department has been holding observing sessions at least three times a semester for many years.

“We’ve been holding these sessions for a long time – the past five years that I’ve been here as observatory director, but also since long before then,” Observatory Director Glenn Spiczak said.

The department has, however, changed the format of observatory sessions to guarantee stargazers one night of good weather for viewing. Since the department can’t promise clear skies, a four-day schedule is set up for every viewing period. The first clear night of the four consecutive days is the night when the viewing session is held.

Viewing sessions are not only offered during spring and fall semesters, since some students, staff and faculty spend their winter breaks and summers on campus.

“Sometimes we’ll do one during J-term, and we often do at least one during the summer when teachers are here taking classes within the department,” Spiczak said.

Prior to every session, physics professor Eileen Korenic holds discussions for viewers on a topic of interest involving astronomy.

The discussion for the most recent session was entitled “Murmurs of Earth – Announcing Our Existence.” This discussion focused on the people of Earth sending signals into outer space via radio waves, and the possibility of beings in outer space picking up these signals.

“I choose the topics based on what’s happening in the news. Like, for example, when Mars had its closest ever approach to Earth, Mars was the topic for one of the talks,” Korenic said. “If there isn’t something in the astronomy news, then I choose something that I find interesting.”

Following the discussion, students and community members of all ages have the opportunity to get a glimpse of such astronomical objects as planets, star clusters, nebulae and constellations.

The next viewing session will be held on the first clear night between Monday, April 24 and Thursday, April 27.