Spectators gather to explore outer space

University graduate students offered a public presentation on NASA missions.

by Courtney Blanchard

The universe in all its splendor was revealed to a crowd of 40 on Saturday night.

During the muggy evening, the space-curious, some standing in the back after all the chairs filled, packed into the visitor center at William O’Brien State Park along the St. Croix River to hear about outer space.

University astronomy graduate students Kisha Delain and Martha Boyer braved the un-air-conditioned space to give a presentation on NASA missions to the crowd including small children and elderly.

Delain and Boyer are part of the Universe in the Park program at the University. Astronomy graduate students and professors commute to Minnesota parks to give short presentations on topics in astronomy and set up telescopes for the public to use to peer into the night sky.

“I study faraway things, like galaxies that orbit each other,” Delain said to the crowd.

Boyer jumped into a presentation, and the two spoke about the Galileo mission, the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope.

Pointing to a slide of Saturn’s Titan moon, Boyer asked the crowd what the blue light surrounding the moon was. Immediately, a boy in the front row raised his hand and shouted matter-of-factly, “It’s the atmosphere!”

Delain later explained that often only kids know the answers to questions about planets and stars.

“Schools actually do teach this stuff, and it’s fresher in their minds (than in adults’),” Delain said. “It’s an obscure topic, but everyone’s interested in it.”

Evan Skillman, professor of astronomy and creator of the program, said it’s a good education for attendees.

“It’s an opportunity for the public to get their questions answered,” he said.

People have an innate curiosity about space and astronomy, and the program allows them to connect with researchers who can answer their questions, Skillman said.

A similar program by the University of Wisconsin astronomy department inspired Skillman to start Universe in the Park, he said. He wrote a grant proposal to NASA in 2000 to initiate the program, and a series of grants has supported it since.

Skillman has access to such grants because he applied to spend time looking at NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Only 15 percent of applicants are granted access to the telescope, and Skillman was one of those accepted.

While Skillman gets the opportunity to observe the night sky through the Hubble telescope, the crowd at William O’Brien State Park got a look at Jupiter through $1,000 telescopes from the astronomy department.

Among the attendees was 7-year-old Nathan Wall of Woodbury, who said he wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. He came with his parents, John and Sara, and his brother Mitchell.

Jordan Sullivan, 9, of Apple Valley squinted through the eyepiece and said it looked way different than he thought it would.

“I haven’t even looked through a telescope before!” he said.

Campers Seth and Ann Rosenzweig of Bloomington attended the event after seeing it on an activity sheet at the park. After stepping away from one of the telescopes, Seth Rosenzweig said he had looked through one before, but “not this nice of a telescope!”