They are hooked on the heavens
are testing the idea of an amateur community observatory
By JIM SHAMP firstname.lastname@example.org;419-6633
Friday, March 15, 2002
"See? There are the three stars of Orion's
belt," said Duke assistant physics professor Ronen Plesser, pointing
to a shining cluster in the darkening sky.
"See that bright thing straight up there?"
asked John Board, another Duke professor. "That's not a star. Look
through the telescope and you'll see it's Jupiter, a planet."
"Wow," said Katie Burke.
Burke, a Jordan High astronomy student, was
part of a gathering of folks standing in a Duke Forest clearing off
Cornwallis Road on Thursday night. Some three dozen area school
students, parents, teachers and Duke University employees were
gathered for the first of what some hope eventually will be a
regular star party.
The field also was alive with jumping Jupiter
gazers, including some elementary-age astronomers who found almost
as much delight in the red-lensed flashlights they waved as in the
Duke officials planned the evening to test the
idea of an amateur community observatory at the site, about two
miles west of Erwin Road. A rim of trees provides a barrier from
area light pollution, but the clearing is wide enough to allow
stargazers to see a lot of sky in all directions.
"I've dreamed of building a basic observatory
out here," said John Harer, a Duke mathematician and vice provost
for academic affairs. "We don't have an astronomy department at
Duke. It's not a focus of ours the way it is at UNC, for example. So
it would have to be something for amateurs. I'd like to have
volunteers from the community work with us to build something, maybe
with a roll-off roof."
Harer, who took his telescope to the event and
helped students interpret the heavens, said a building with an
easily removable roof could provide wintertime shelter when needed
by local astronomy buffs who might want to gather at the site and
poke their scopes skyward.
"It's obvious from the excitement among people
of all ages here tonight that there is interest," said David Stein,
education partnership coordinator with Duke's Office of Community
Affairs, who helped host the event.
Harer agreed that stargazing has proven to be a
delightful social event.
"When I set up my telescope in our back yard,
my 4-year-old daughter is just not interested," he said. "But she's
having a ball tonight."
Burke was accompanied by teacher Ted Oakley and
a few other students from her class who voluntarily showed up for
the celestial show.
Chris Young, a Duke University Hospital
anesthesiologist, bought his telescope about three years ago after
becoming hooked on the heavens by participating in similar events
sponsored by a Chapel Hill astronomy club.
Twins Madeline and Carly Jones, 7,
first-graders at Forest View Elementary School, were already
becoming regulars at this sort of thing. Their brother Alex, 9, a
third-grader at the same school, was also there, along with their
mother, Lisa, a kindergarten assistant at their school.
Kindergarten teacher John Heffernan took the
Joneses with his class to the Duke physics building, the youngsters
explained, and they got to see Saturn and Jupiter through
telescopes. Now they were in this field for more planetary
Huge cookies, hot chocolate, storytelling and a
small fire helped feed the mood and the tummies as Harer proclaimed
the sun officially gone at 7:48 p.m.
Grace Betts, 6, also a Forest View student,
stepped to Young's 5-inch telescope when she heard him say he'd aim
it at Jupiter.
"Jupiter's the biggest planet," Young told the
tot. "What do you think it's made of? Solid or gas?"
"Gas," said Grace, as her father, Scott, smiled
at her correct answer.
Grace's brother Max and his buddy, Gus Donner,
both third-graders at Forest View, had already headed for the
There were many sightings of Saturn's rings,
Jupiter's bands and moons, Orion's belt and even his nebula,
described as a "stellar nursery - a place where stars are
It was a learning experience. And as Harer got
ready to pack up his gear, he grabbed a cookie and allowed himself a
final observation on the experiment.
"You know," he said, "I think the people having
the most fun out here are the parents."