Public Observing 2009: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Release date: November 24, 2009

Let's start with The Bad.  Ask any astronomer and they will tell you that observing the sky is always a gamble.  You might outcompete 100 other proposals to use one of the largest telescopes on earth, travel half-way around the world to get there, and then spend three nights in a row surfing the web because the sky is clouded over.  Well, it's been a rough semester for public observing at the Lewis Observatory, since it has been raining or cloudy every third-thursday starting in September.  To help increase the chances of seeing clear skies, we have designated the following thursday of each month as a rain date.  However, that didn't work either since on the make-up night in October, Dr. Sugerman was ill, and the November make-up night falls on Thanksgiving.  Chin up!  We'll have better luck in 2010, and there is a lot to look forward to (read on!).

Now for The Ugly.  When you look at just about any deep-sky object other than Jupiter or Saturn, you mostly see a faint, fuzzy white blur.  It isn't the telescope's fault, but our own: our eyes take a "picture" of what they see about 14 times per second, so our eyes just can't gather enough light to make these far-away, faint objects look dazzling and bright.  Now that the web is full of spectacular pictures of nebulae and galaxies and star clusters in larger-than-life color and resolution, it can make looking through a rooftop telescope a little bit of a let-down.  As an example, below is a picture of the spiral galaxy M33 as it looks to your eye.  Can you see the very faint blur in the middle?

 

So where is The Good?  As part of our continued upgrading of the Lewis observatory, we just purchased a wide-field telescope and a full-color CCD camera.  Starting with our winter Public Observing nights, you will also be able to see the sky in the dazzling detail that can only come with deep exposures taken with a camera.  Wherever we point the telescope, we will be taking deep-sky images in real time, so you can see the sky two ways: through the lens with your own eye, and through the digital magic of today's most powerful cameras.  As an example, the picture below is a 5-minute exposure of the same galaxy as above.

    

See what we mean? And once we get the kinds ironed out, we will be able to send you home with copies of all the images we took, as keepsakes of your experience.

The Lewis Observatory is operated by the Goucher College Department of Physics and Astronomy, in conjunction with the Goucher Physics and Astronomy Club.  For more information, visit http://blogs.goucher.edu/bsugerman/public-observing/ or email Dr. Sugerman at ben.sugerman@goucher.edu.