Outdoor Observation Beyond the Stars

While posters, banners, tents and other miscellaneous promotional materials garnered attention for various organizations on Ring Road during the first week of spring quarter, individuals flocked to another part of UC Irvine that was almost in total darkness. With only a few flashlights and flickering screens, the UCI Observatory gathered attention from the UCI community and beyond with its series of three Visitor Nights held from April 3 to April 5.

Tammy Smecker-Hane, the director of the UCI Observatory and an associate professor of physics and astronomy, organized the first Visitor Night in 1997. Serving as a mentor to the Astronomy Club at UCI, Smecker-Hane held these initial events for no other reason than to foster interest in astronomy. Yet, while she was able to achieve this, she earned even more attention than what she bargained for.

Because the observatory had acquired little attention outside of students and researchers since it was established in 1993, Smecker-Hane was surprised by the turnout of these early events. Still, she is satisfied with the enduring popularity of Visitor Nights.
“The first [Visitor Night] we had about 150 people. Tonight [we could] have 1,000,” Smecker-Hane said.

Unquestionably the centerpiece of any Visitor Night is the 24-inch telescope housed in the observatory. Although the observatory itself stands 20 feet tall and has a 20-foot diameter globe, the 24-inch measurement is used to describe the telescope as it refers to the mirror that the telescope uses. This mirror works to magnify objects in space, beyond the capacities of the human eye.

According to Smecker-Hane, this batch of Visitor Nights may have been particularly appealing to novice astronomers as it dealt with what she defines as the three major parts of astronomy: planets, stars and galaxies. Physics and astronomy graduate students Erik Tollerud, Michael Hood and Carol Thornton gave lectures on each topic, respectively, on each night of the series.

Yet, though each graduate student dealt with a different topic, the different presentations shared some similar ground such as identifying general misperceptions of astronomy.

“[In] most constellations … the stars are not really related to each other whatsoever. They just happen to be in the same direction, sort of like Santa Ana and Las Vegas are somewhat in the same direction, but they’re not really related; they’re very far apart,” Hood said during his presentation.

Still, according to Hood there are exceptions to such rules in astronomy as he explained using the example of the Orion constellation.

“Orion’s different. Orion’s stars are actually related. They’re relatively close together. They’re all formed out of the same stuff,” Hood said.

He went on to explain that the stars of Orion lie in a big gas cloud that has new stars forming in the center of the cloud. Although this gas cloud cannot be observed by the naked eye, using a telescope and infrared lighting, one can observe this cloud, which is comprised of hydrogen gas.

Another commonly mentioned topic during the presentations was how different aspects of astronomy must be understood in relative terms. For instance, white dwarf material is light in comparison to the material of a neutron star. That being said, white dwarf material weighs roughly 11 tons.

Although typically only five Visitor Nights are held each year, this series was added to the UCI Observatory’s calendar in recognition of the United Nations designating 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy.

Still, despite the verbal support of the United Nations in funding the added Visitor Nights, the UCI Observatory was left to its own devices. According to Smecker-Hane, due to such costs as paying student workers and keeping a shuttle to the observatory running, each Visitor Night costs $2,000.

“This little party we’re having this weekend is going to exhaust all of our funds until October,” Smecker-Hane said.

According to Smecker-Hane, the National Science Foundation gives some financial support to the UCI Observatory through its Faculty Outreach Collaborations Uniting Scientists, Students and Schools. However, the grant is not enough to cover the complete costs of these events. As such, she asks that attendees make small donations ranging anywhere from $1 or $2, in order for UCI and its surrounding community to enjoy this event that requires no admissions fee.

More information can be found by visiting the facility’s Web site, www.physics.uci.edu/~observat.