There are eleven of us, huddled into a donut shaped room; a massive telescope taking center stage where the donut hole would normally be. We orbit around it, people of all different sizes shapes and ages, bopping from one side of the room to the next. There are children here, no doubt fueled and running on late-night adrenaline and the promise of seeing Saturn tonight.
William Parker is the professor of astronomy at Parkside University and director of the Charles and Kathryn Heide Schoolyard Observatory courses and events. He’s the brilliant engineer showing each novice star-gazers how to differentiate a planet, a moon, a galaxy, a cluster from the next bright bling in the sky. He’s been speaking the language of the heavens and interacting with it’s shape-shifting features for such a length of time as to take the brilliant “astro-physicistness” of it all and serve it to us in kindergarten sized cups. He’s not put off by late-comers or those who need to step out of the observatory to “see for themselves”. He is calm and engaging- quoting back information gathered up in his wikipedia mind.
We’re lucky to have a night so clear. Weather is the one unpredictable factor in all the wishing upon the stars. The observatory at Hawthorn Hollow provides an escape from the high volume of light pollution that hovers over nearby cities like Racine, Chicago, Milwaukee. At least here, on this 90 acre nature preserve, you get a pocket of darkness whereby light is lighter. In addition to the darkness, we are granted, within the walls of the observatory, red-light. Red-light is the choice luminary due to it’s ability to provide visibility, but also to keep our eyes from dilating too wide; an automatic survival skill that happens when we are exposed to light or darkness. Research shows that our eyes will grow accustom to the darkness- and visibility will become more clear the longer we are exposed to low levels of lighting. And we found it to be true. At first, where we were only able to see the brightest of stars, … soon we found we were enveloped in trillions of small bodies of light and energy beaming back at us from light-years away.
But naked eye-sight can only stretch so far. Soon there is need for magnification. The telescope lense at Hawthorn Hollow’s Observatory is 16″ in diameter and magnifies exponentially. By using the Observatory, we open a “window” to the sky based on mapping techniques and computers and coordinates and wires. The window limits visibility to the rest of the vast sky and narrows the search for specific constellations, stars, magic and phenomenal science.
Tonight, we observed Jupiter before it dimmed too low for us to see 4 of the many moons that are a part of Jupiter’s orbit. Then onto Saturn and it’s rings. A star cluster. A galaxy of trillions of stars resembling cloudy water, swirls of mist in the sky. Taking turns, the group of star-gazers sometimes gasp at the wonder of it all. A few people add their well-read research into the mixing pot of science and discovery. I am mostly silent. I am not watching a discovery channel program. I am looking through a lense and viewing the ACTUAL planet of Jupiter. It’s moving right in front of me. It’s existing at the same time that I am. And of course we know that this is always true. We just aren’t looking or thinking about it as we click out a cart from Aldi, pump gas into our vehicle, throw our orange peel in the compost. But the heavens are there. Ever there. And Hawthorn Hollow’s Observation programs make it possible for us to be introduced on an intimate and knowing level. We’re staring into the eye of an eye to see that which can not otherwise be seen.
To find the Observatory’s scheduled programs, visit https://www.hawthornhollow.org/observatory/current-event/
You might find yourself huddled up with a bunch of star-gazers in a tiny donut shaped room, feeling smaller than you ever thought possible.
For further articles on this special Observatory: