Observatory Sees off ISON

UC Irvine Observatory held a Visitor Night to bid farewell to the late Comet ISON that disintegrated after its brush encounter with the sun late November of last year. The Visitor Night took place last Saturday evening, Jan. 18, and was themed “Comets for Fun and Profit.”

Virginia Trimble, Ph.D. kicked off the event with a talk discussing famous comets from the past and how they were understood at the time. Her talk was followed by star-gazing activities featuring the Orion Nebula, Jupiter and its Galilean Moons, and Earth’s very own Moon.

Trimble is an internationally renowned astrophysicist and faculty professor at UCI, whose main research focuses on binary stars. At the age of 18, she was featured in Life magazine for having an I.Q. of 180. A crowd of over 100 astronomy aficionados, mostly parents and kids, came to hear Trimble’s presentation.

“Comets, even now, are to a considerable extent unpredictable,” Trimble said. “Over human history, people have been afraid of things when they didn’t see them coming. Rationally we should still be afraid of things when we don’t see them coming like large trucks. Comets would appear in the sky and disappear when nobody understood what they were and why they were there.”

Trimble noted that despite the unpredictability of comets, some comets can periodically and predictably return back to the Earth. This fact was proven by Edmond Halley who predicted a comet’s arrival in 1758. Halley’s Comet, now named after him, is famous for being the only comet to possibly appear twice in one human lifetime. Trimble admits that her own grandmother, born in 1886, lived to see Halley’s Comet’s twice — once in 1910 and another in 1986.

Astronomers were hoping Comet ISON, named in honor of the International Scientific Optical Network located in Russia, would return in January. ISON was expected to be a spectacular comet according to Trimble, but she explained it journeyed too close to the sun — incinerating the comet into to debris imperceptible from Earth.

Trimble ended her talk stating, “Comets are much better understood than they were in Halley’s time, but they are definitely still unpredictable.”

Staff at the event then led the crowd to seek out constellations using a given sky map.

Telescopes were also set up, thanks to the Orange County Astronomers, to view Jupiter’s Galilean moons and craters of Earth’s moon. UCI Observatory’s 24-inch telescope featured a high resolution look at the Orion Nebula. According to graduate student Tim Carlton, the optimal time to view this nebula is around the late summer to fall.

Nebulas, described as a gigantic gas cloud, are where stars are born. “Stars are mostly hydrogen,” Sky Phillips, an undergraduate specializing in astrophysics, explained. “When hydrogen is really hot by having a lot of pressure, hydrogen will fuse together to get helium. Helium will fuse into all the other elements — nitrogen, nitrogen to oxygen, oxygen to carbon… Stars create elements… All the iron in your blood, all the calcium in your bones — they were all formed in a star… When they explode, they push all that material out into the universe and you are born. You are a product of a star.”

Dr. Tammy Smecker-Hane, director of the UCI Observatory and the Astronomy Outreach Program, announced during the event that the observatory will be closed in August to be demolished and then rebuilt with a new observatory facility. Renovation is expected to include a new road, parking lot structure, a building to house a brand new telescope and a built-in-bathroom. Construction will take approximately six to eight months before completion. While the observatory is closed, Visitor Nights will be held in Aldrich Park.