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Are we truly the only ones in this universe? In the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence-inspired 1997 film ‘Contact,’ Matthew McConaughey responds to the idea, ‘Well, if we are the only ones, it would be an awful waste of space, wouldn’t it?’ Questions like these are just a few you can ponder while exploring the night sky with physics professor Tammy Smecker-Hane and her crew of graduate students at one of UC Irvine Observatory’s Visitor Nights along the edge of campus.
Operated by the UCI Department of Physics and Astronomy, the visitor nights at the observatory are made possible by a $14 million National Science Foundation grant for an educational partner program entitled Faculty Outreach Collaborations Uniting Scientists, Students and Schools.
The grant was awarded to UCI in 2002, the largest that the university had ever received at the time, in collaboration with President Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy. Out of the grant, $10,000 is used just for visitor nights.
Former Chancellor Ralph J. Cicerone once said that the grant was a testament to ‘the dedication and commitment of our faculty to improving math and science education for our children and to providing the teacher education and training to make that possible,’ which it has been doing as the FOCUS program has been serving over 100,000 students across Southern California.
On better nights when the sky is clear and the stars are more visible, the UCI Observatory will attract nearly 1,000 visitors, consisting not only of UCI students but members from all over the Irvine community, to its visitor nights from 8 to 10 p.m.
Visitor nights at the observatory are only held about five to six times a year, or about once a quarter, and dates are chosen to coincide with special occurrence in the evening sky.
On May 18, the moon began its new phase. Even though the sky was completely blanketed, that didn’t stop nearly 400 visitors from trekking along the unlit dirt path to learn more about the universe and man’s purpose within it.
A lecture called ‘Man’s Place in the Cosmos,’ which usually lasts only a half hour, took longer than expected so the crew at the observatory decided not to repeat it, Smecker-Hane explained.
One of the observatory’s main attractions is its large computer-controlled telescope built two decades ago, which has a 24-inch primary mirror and an 8.5-inch secondary mirror used for taking high-resolution photos of planets, star clusters and galaxies.
‘It’s weird how we can only see such a small luminous fraction of the universe,’ said UCI physics graduate student Matthew Teig.
Indeed it is, but if you find the examination of the cosmos a bit daunting there are also smaller telescopes outside of the dome to observe the Irvine and Tustin communities.
Amateur astronomers are encouraged to bring their own telescopes to share with the public and in doing so, are allowed to drive their vehicles on the dirt path leading to the observatory.
Visitor nights are free of charge and reservations aren’t necessary. However, the next visitor nights will not be until August 3 and August 27. The latter of these dates corresponds with a total lunar eclipse

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