Do you know why the Milky Way is so named? It’s shaped like a disk, and since we sit inside of that disk, there’s a particular direction we can look and see the “thickest” slice of our galaxy (from where we are to the edge). This slice appears as a band across the sky, milky because our eyes can’t distinguish the billions of individual stars from one another. The sight of this illuminated strip, a reminder of our own insignificant place orbiting one star out of a few hundred billion in one galaxy out of a couple hundred billion, is truly amazing. Have you seen it before?
If not, you should really head over for a tour of the Mees Observatory. The observatory, owned and operated by the University of Rochester and about an hour’s drive away, sits on the highest point in Ontario County; given the low levels of light pollution there, it’s kind of like “the best seat in the house” when it comes to observing the stars (and other such astronomical objects).
The trip started with a powerpoint. Well, no, the trip started with the bus ride over (which I planned to spend reading but, naturally, got sucked into a conversation about Marxism and television and Ramadan and what those all have to do with each other, because a bus ride with Rochester students is never boring). And then continued with us getting out of the bus to stand on a dais outside the house that treated us to this panorama:
And then with us getting coffee and donuts.
But after all of that, there was a powerpoint, courtesy of our tour guide Dave Cameron. Highlights of the presentation include: everyone at the UR has been pronouncing Gannett wrong (actually guh-NET), and the house at the observatory is named after him; on any given night there will be about 3 dozen satellites visible, most of which are garbage (“we’re polluting the sky”); the night of our visit was the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11, of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin fame; someone asked “Does Pluto still exist?” when we were naming off the planets; and, as beautiful as our auroras are on Earth, listening to Saturn’s aurora provided me with a brand new soundtrack for my worst nightmares.
Overall, the presentation was fun and engaging. We did pause for a moment during to head outside and see an iridium flare, which is when an iridium communication satellite catches the light just so, and, well, flares. The flash can be incredibly bright, up to 30 times brighter than Venus, and I’m really sorry that I just ruined that one time you thought you saw a UFO (if you’re interested, you can plan a viewing here).
The tour continued with a trek into the actual observatory. There are two parts to the observatory: a control room and the telescope.
The control room, running on computers older than me, locks in on a star (or other object) and moves the telescope.
Meanwhile, up in the telescope area, you can rotate the ceiling to reveal some pretty spectacular views.
The first thing we saw was Saturn, and all its rings. The rings are only about 30-300 ft. thick and more than 750 million miles away (point of comparison: that’s more than 100 times the combined height of every single living person)… and yet, here they were, clearly visible. I saw how the planet was tilted, and the swirls on its surface. I don’t know the best way to communicate what it was like to see something that cool, but I will say that the first person to go up and take a peek simply exclaimed: wow.
We saw a ring nebula, and (my personal favorite) the Hercules globular cluster. All the while, Eric Mamajek, a UR professor, answered our questions and shared stories about the universe and where it came from (and let us know that if we’re interested, we can learn much more about it in Astronomy 105 or 111 next semester).
An expedition to Niagara Falls or Letchworth State Park can certainly be beautiful, but to me, there’s something even cooler about being a tourist of your solar system. We ended the night by going out, looking up at the stars, and seeing the band across the sky that gives our galaxy its name: the Milky Way, the ultimate sightseeing experience.
PS: if you follow that Mees Observatory link, it loads a different background picture whenever you refresh the page, so have fun with that.