A hidden treasure, the Joseph R. Lynch Observatory at Drexel University sits atop the main building and offers public open night viewings of the stars the first Wednesday of every month during the academic year. I had the great fortune of attending one of these open houses on March 2nd, and though it was a chilly night on that rooftop, I can confidently say that this is one of the sweetest gems that Drexel has to offer to its students. This is an opportunity every student should experience before they leave the institution.
Open houses start roughly 30 minutes after sunset, and run for two hours. The rooftop area offers a large mechanized dome telescope, as well as a couple smaller telescopes so that everyone has a opportunity to view the sky from different perspectives. Physics Professor Gordan Richards, as well as several grad students and helpers, guide the viewers through their night sky gazing as he points out constellations, stars, and other wonders of the sky.
The location of stars and stellar events differ nearly every night. During my particular visit to the observatory, we were able to catch sight of three satellites traveling by before they dissolved into the darkness of the sky. We were also about to see many prominent constellations: Orion’s Belt was one of the first to pop out of the sky. Between his lower half, the telescopes were able to zoom into the proper coordinates to capture the Orion Nebula, invisible to the naked eye. This nebula is rather young in terms of space talk, over two million years old and first discovered by man back in 1610. Stars are currently forming within the nebula, and we were able to view about four very bright young stars through the eyepiece of the telescope. We saw plenty of other constellations as well, Cassiopeia, the Gemini Twins, Pleiades, also known as “the Seven Sisters,” and everyone’s favorite, the Big Dipper.
One of the most breathtaking sights of the night was Jupiter, which was setting on the Horizon, but now quick enough for us to miss it. When we zoomed in enough to the planet, you could clearly spot four of Jupiter’s moons, two on either side of it. If you looked hard enough, you could even spot the colored bands of the planet itself. Incredibly, the sight of such a massive planet was captured in a very tiny frame of the sky. Looking through the telescopes at the sky was providing you a look a very minor portion of the sky at a time, the equivalent of looking through the hole of a straw you hold out an arm’s length in front of you, as Professor Richards pointed out.
Generally, people assume that because we live in the city, there is too much light pollution to get a good chance to star gaze. While this may be somewhat true, the sights would have certainly been better had we been away from the city lights, the Lynch Observatory still manages to provide an opportunity to get a glimpse of some of the wonders and beauties of space. I intend to go back here for another open house soon, and I recommend that you check it out as well.
Meaghan Donchak 2011 graduate, BS/MS in Communication.
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI.