UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Calling All K-PAX Types

The astronomical observatory atop the Healey Library has always been something of an enigma. The unmistakable dome catches your eye right away as you approach the campus or fly overhead. However, only a small fraction of the UMB population actually visits the observatory.

Public viewing is held every Wednesday, a group assembles at 5:30 pm outside the Physics Club on the third floor of the Science Building (S-3-113). We went there last week, and found a small group of interesting people with majors ranging from biochemistry to math, computer science and literature. It was a bit chilly but the enthusiasm was infectious.

We were thrilled to focus on the Orion nebula. Visible to the unaided eye, it appears as a small fuzzy patch in the constellation of Orion and is a busy neighborhood of young stars, hot gas, and dark dust that covers much of the region. Interestingly, the whole nebula cloud complex will slowly disperse over the next 100,000 years.

Beautiful as it was, it took a while to get the coordinates right. Our telescope at UMB has two motors that help in aiming the mirror at the object you want to observe. Direction is changed using a hand-held controller. Most telescopes these days come with something called an AutoStar controller. You just select a star or planet from a huge database and the telescope automatically focuses at the right place. Opinions vary on the advantages of this utility.

While some experts feel it saves time and lets one explore hard-to-find objects, others think the time spent on the search, and the thrill of locating something, enhances one’s understanding of the subject.

Named in the memory of late Professor Arthur W. Martin, who was instrumental in setting up the telescope, dome and other infrastructure, the observatory boasts a 16-inch Newtonian reflector as well as a 6-inch Dobsonian. Though technology and better mirrors are letting even entry-level telescopes compete with their larger cousins, on a clear night the observatory telescope can provide stunning visuals.

At our observatory, tracking is manual. Elias Collins, coordinator at the observatory, feels we could do with an AutoStar controller. “Filters to reduce the haze from light pollution would be fine. And a digital image capture device would be really terrific. A T-adapter and a 35-mm camera would be great for astrophotography,” he adds. But all this means big money. Elias has already approached the department and other sources in the university for funds but thinks he can manage at least some of the stuff from funds in the Physics Club, which also houses an unofficial astronomy club, as well as some personal savings.

Assisting Elias in running the observatory is undergraduate physics/math major Vickie Johnson. Starting with her roommate, she has managed to win many new converts to this exciting field. “I am always interested in astronomy and I try not to miss these viewings,” she said as she showed us how to handle the small Dobsonian. I balance it on my shoulder and get a passing plane in the crosswire.

Elias was still trying hard to find the Orion nebula. Using the Orion belt as some kind of a lighthouse, he peers through the viewfinder and coaxed the controller to slowly nudge the motors and get the nebula in sight. A look through the eyepiece reveals a whitish patch that appears, well, heavenly. Vickie points out Betelgeuse, or the “armpit” of Orion. It glows with a dull red hue. Though it is not as bright as the Sun, its size is estimated at around 250 Suns. If one were to replace our Sun with Betelgeuse, it would completely engulf the Earth and extend as far as Mars.

With the nebula “fixed,” we played around with a few other stars before it was time to leave. Even as we do so, Vickie took the controls and tried to “capture” Saturn “or whatever else it is.” A few enthusiasts stayed late to see the “mystery planet.” The usual question reoccurred “Is Anyone Out There?” We will be there to wonder again week.