Seeing Stars

When the elevator in McCardell Bicentennial Hall stops on the seventh floor, everyone steps off. Since it’s the top floor and the elevator will go no higher, tonight’s visitors to the College Observatory still have another 36 steps to climb before they reach the massive, computer-controlled reflecting telescope inside the dome.

As night falls, the Observatory dome opens.

It’s Observatory Open House night at Middlebury College, and the stairs leading to the dome are packed with visitors young and old, many of whom are speaking foreign languages owing to the substantial population of Language Schools students, faculty, and families on campus. The skies are remarkably clear for a mid-summer evening in Vermont, and looking through the eyepiece of the big telescope is going to be a major attraction tonight.

Frank Winkler, the Gamaliel Painter Bicentennial professor of physics, has aligned the instrument to view Epsilon Lyr, a “double-double star” in the constellation Lyra. (The College telescope can collect about 10,000 times more light than the pupil of the human eye.) After a few final words of encouragement to student assistant Edward Smyth ’15, Winkler hurries down the crowded steps to the roof deck where about 20 people have gathered.

“It’s going to be really good viewing tonight,” Winkler says as he checks the alignment of the smaller reflecting telescopes mounted on the roof of Bi Hall. Three more assistants—Adrienne Matunas ’13, Zijian Yao ’15, and Lucia Perez (a visiting researcher from Wellesley College)—have pointed the telescopes at Saturn, Mars, and the bright star Vega.

It’s now 9 p.m. and lines of people have formed at each of the three roof-mounted scopes; Stephen Ratcliff, the Jacob Abbott professor of natural sciences, keeps a watchful eye on the rooftop proceedings; and a Russian-speaking lad of no more than six or seven circles back on line for yet another (and another!) close-up look at the rings of Saturn.

To the visitors it all seems so seamless. About 150-200 people, including many residents of the town and surrounding area, will get a close-up look at the heavens tonight. They’ll chat with the student-assistants and learn a little about the night sky. They’ll marvel at the incredible view in every direction and get a glimpse into deep space.

But because of weather, things don’t always go so smoothly. The physics department conducts several observatory nights each year and weather is always the biggest concern, for without clear skies there is no viewing.  And since the planning for each Observatory Open House begins weeks in advance of the event, Prof. Winkler and his team never know what the weather will be like on the day of the event.

“We start by contacting the newspapers, radio stations, calendars, and websites to inform everyone about what’s coming up at the observatory,” Winkler explains.”We handle all our own publicity ourselves.”

“It’s going to be good viewing tonight,” said Frank Winkler.

There’s also the task of producing multi-language flyers (¡Las Estrellas! Le Stelle! Les Ètoiles! Die Sterne! etc.) and tacking them to bulletin boards on campus and around town – a job handled by the student assistants.

As the day of an Observatory Open House approaches, Winkler contacts his students to make certain they are available. He consults with Ratcliff, his able comrade-in-arms for these events since the 1980s. He advises the Bi Hall technical support staff of his plans, and he asks the public safety department to assign an officer to the rooftop in case there is an issue, which there rarely is.

Winkler, who has been at Middlebury for 43 years, checks the star charts for unusual celestial occurrences. He looks at satellite passes to see whether anything interesting, like the International Space Station, will be going by. He always produces a two-sided program specific to what people will see through the 24-inch telescope inside the dome and through the two 11-inch and one eight-inch telescopes on the deck. (The inches refer to the diameter of each scope’s objective mirror.) And then there is the weather: Winkler monitors the conditions, emails his assistants about the forecast, and by 7 p.m. updates the recorded message (443-2266) on the Observatory Open House telephone line.

If it’s a “go,” the team members meet at 8 p.m. at the spot where the elevator stops on the seventh floor. They boot up the computer that controls the big telescope and the rotating dome, and keeps them tracking accurately. (The telescope and the dome move in unison to account for the rotation of the Earth.) They also begin the process of aligning the three smaller scopes by fixing each one on two bright stars in the evening sky, such as Polaris and Arcturus.

Ever the tireless host, Winkler dashes off to post directional signs inside Bi Hall. “Many of tonight’s visitors will be making their first trek to the College Observatory,” he says. “We don’t want them to get lost.”

Then, without fanfare, Middlebury’s astrophysicist is back on the rooftop again. Now it’s time to enjoy the stars.

The Observatory Open House will be held again on August 1, August 8, and August 15 in McCardell Bicentennial Hall just off Vermont Rte. 125 in Middlebury, weather permitting. Call the observatory after 7 p.m. on the evening of an open house for a status report. Viewing is from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. free of charge.

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  1. I remember the old observatory and failing to make it work. Could there be an Open House during the Alumni Conference?
    What should I add?
    My husband works for the Kavli Institute at MIT which has continued my interest in astronomy, and I read the item about the August Open Houses at the observatory.
    — Betsy Cilley Goeke ’60

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