Astronomy department looks at Friday night lights

The department is holding public viewings at the Tate Lab’s observatory.

From the highly illuminated streets of Minneapolis, seeing the stars in the night sky can be difficult.

But the University’s department of astronomy is trying to make it easier for city dwellers to look up this spring.

On Friday nights through the end of the semester, the department is holding public sky viewings in an observation dome on top of the Tate Lab of Physics.

Students and community members are able to use telescopes provided by the department to spot stars, planetary nebulas and other space phenomena not typically seen by the naked eye.

The viewings last from 9 to 10:30 p.m.

Astronomy teaching assistants are around to assist in finding planets and star clusters and explain the background and importance of objects.

Erik Semrud, an aerospace engineering junior, works at the weekly event.

“The average person does not have access to a telescope for viewing the stars or nearby objects,” he said.

Last Friday, the teaching assistants involved – astrophysics and physics senior Michele Benesh and astrophysics senior Ryan Howie – used the 100-year-old telescope to locate objects in the night sky.

Semrud said the TAs running the public viewing will pick an interesting object and find it in the sky with the telescope, then allow participants to look through the telescope at the object.

On Friday, Benesh and Howie located the moon with its visible craters and smooth surface, Venus, Saturn and the red star Betelgeuse.

“My favorite part of the event is letting people see the wonders of the celestial objects in the sky,” Benesh said. “It’s always fun for me to come up here and refamiliarize myself with those objects. People don’t get a lot of exposure to basic observational astronomy.”

The typical crowd for the event is between five and 20 people, ranging from Boy Scout groups to suburb residents, though Friday’s group was larger than average.

Kathy Mack, a Minnetonka resident, attended the event with a friend for the first time.

“I came out of curiosity and fascination,” she said. “I’ve never been in an observatory with a movable roof Ö it’s interesting to see how (telescopes) work.”

The TAs answered questions about the moon’s surface, including how the craters got there. They taught participants about the theory of plate tectonics and the craters on the earth’s surface.

“There are a lot of people in the city that don’t get the opportunity to see neat things in the sky Ö (so the event) is always a good thing,” Howie said.

Cloudy skies can affect the viewings, so the department asks that people call one hour before to make sure it is still being held.

-Freelance Editor Yelena Kibasova welcomes comments at [email protected]