Science/Leisure: Seeing stars

Published Feb. 2003 in Boston Herald-owned community newspapers

Seeing stars at Wheaton's observatory

By Lori Hein / Correspondent
Thursday, February 20, 2003

This is the fourth in a series of articles on various activities available in Bristol County to help you and your family through the cold winter days.

"Tonight, girls, we have Jupiter, Saturn, the moon and the Orion Nebula in our telescopes," announced Wheaton College student Rebecca Washburn, as a troop of about 20 Girl Scouts walked out onto the roof of the school's science center.

The rooftop deck is home to a platoon of powerful telescopes. On this clear Friday night, while some of the telescopes stayed wrapped under beige covers against the cold, four of them were tilted up and trained on beautiful objects in the winter sky.

"Is this open all year?" asked one dad who was chaperoning the girls. "I live right down the street and didn't know about it."

He was clearly planning a return visit, perhaps sans scouts.

On Friday nights, when school is in session and weather cooperates, Norton's Wheaton College Observatory invites the public to tour the heavens, guided by observatory director Lori Agan and a crew of knowledgeable astronomy students.

The Girl Scouts queued up patiently behind the telescopes. The one focused on Saturn had the longest line. When it's visible, Saturn evidently sees a lot of action.

"The rings of Saturn are a sure winner every time," Agan said.

While you wait your turn for a telescope view, your naked eyes scan the sky, and student assistants like Jon Burkle can tell you what you're looking at. On this night, something beautifully white glowed next to the nearly full moon.

Burkle turned it from an unidentified lovely object into the galaxy's largest planet.

"Did you hear that?" exclaimed one of the scouts. "That big bright thing is Jupiter!"

Burkle then pointed out the V-shaped face of Taurus the Bull, shining Saturn, the Pleiades star cluster and Orion the Hunter's belt and sword.

Viewing these new friends through a telescope yielded wonders the naked eye couldn't see: the reddish Orion Nebula (which Agan calls a "stellar maternity ward") hanging in the hunter's belt, and three of Jupiter's four moons.

Burkle, a junior majoring in physics, is on the science center roof most cloud-free Friday nights. He enjoys sharing his knowledge of and passion for astronomy with observatory visitors.

"I love entertaining people's enthusiasm for astronomy," he said. "It's priceless."

Agan was busy this particular night because the observatory was hosting both the Girl Scouts and a smaller Cub Scout pack. For both groups, she'd presented a short slide show before escorting the kids to the roof to see the real deal.

The observatory crew had attached a video camera to the eyepiece of the telescope capturing the moon, and people gathered around the video screen to marvel at close-ups. A Cub Scout had located a large crater and, with Washburn's help, named it. His excited report made everyone on the roof smile: "I saw the moon's craters! One's called Plato!"

Washburn put Plato's dimensions into perspective: "It's about the size of Norton."

A variety of people from a variety of places visit the Wheaton observatory. "We expect 75-100 visitors every open Friday," Agan said. "Visitors from as far away as New Hampshire and as close as a student's dorm. Families, amateur astronomers, alumnae, teachers."

Many groups schedule outings to the observatory, and Agan and her crew ensure a worthwhile experience. Last fall, a school group enjoyed an unusual star tour. A night that had begun clear turned cloudy, rendering the telescopes ineffective.

"One of our students started telling stories about mythologies of the constellations... and the students loved it," Agan recalled. "The teachers and parents felt their students had benefited from the experience, even under cloudy skies."

This Friday night was crisp, and visitors ranged from kids considering the heavens for the first time to accomplished stargazers. While some roamed the roof saying, "Wow, that's beautiful," others deftly discussed topics like density and impact craters.

Agan confirms that amateur astronomy is "definitely a growing field, especially as telescope and camera prices have decreased. Amateur astronomers make a significant scientific contribution."

The Wheaton observatory is a great place to develop or hone stargazing skills. Several websites can help you prepare for your astronomical trip to Wheaton. Make a virtual visit at Lori Agan's website, has both descriptions and images of objects in the night sky.

Agan also contributes to a NASA education project called NESSIE (New England Space Science Initiative in Education). The NESSIE website,, has a universe of links to help you "participate in cosmic discovery."

The Wheaton College Observatory is open on clear Friday nights from 7:30-8:30 p.m. The science center is in the upper campus, and there's a parking lot across from the building. Call 508-286-3937 in the late afternoon or early evening on a given Friday to see if the observatory will be open. Groups interested in special programs can contact Lori Agan at 508-286-3979.

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