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On the record ... with Matt Wiesner

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010 3:41 p.m. CST

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December may be the official start of winter, but it is also a good month for stargazing.

A stargazing event will held from midnight to 7 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 21 at the Northern Illinois University Observatory, located in Room 703 of Davis Hall. Residents will have an opportunity to view a lunar eclipse, as well as several celestial objects.

Matt Wiesner, manager of the NIU Observatory, said he hopes many residents will attend the event to view the nighttime sky. Wiesner recently went on the record with MidWeek reporter Dennis Hines to talk about the Dec. 21 event, as well as other aspects of the observatory.

Dennis Hines: What are some things people can expect to see on Dec. 21?

Matt Wiesner: We’re going to be watching a lunar eclipse. What a lunar eclipse looks likes is if you start seeing shadows. It’s a perfectly full moon, so that’s the height of a full moon. You start seeing a shadow coming across the full moon, and about an hour or so, the shadow increasingly covers the full moon until the totality of the moon turns red. It’s kind of weird, because it used to be a full moon, but once the eclipse has reached totality, the moon is completely blood red. It’s almost creepy. You can imagine why people use to think it was a bad omen when it turned blood red like that.

DH: I understand this is going to be an all-night event?

MW: That’s correct. The eclipse is happening about 2 o’clock in the morning, so we’re staying open all night to accommodate that. Lunar eclipses are rather long events, so the whole event is going to take about two hours, maybe a little more than that, from the beginning of the shadow of the earth going across the moon to it returning to a full moon. These aren’t quick like a solar eclipse.

Dec. 21 is a really significant day. Three celestial events are happening on one day. First is the full moon, second is the lunar eclipse, then it’s also the winter solace, so it’s going to be a big day for astronomers.

DH: What are some things that people might see in the winter that they might not be able to see other times of the year?

MW: On a given night, you would see Jupiter. Jupiter is high in the sky right now. The Andromeda galaxy is really nice right now. Pleiades, which is a cluster off of the Taurus is pretty nice. Orion has just emerged. It has some nice stars, and there’s a nice nebula that recently started coming up. During the eclipse event, if it is clear, we will be able to see some other stuff, too. That’s why we’re staying open from midnight to sunrise. We’re opening probably an hour and a half before the eclipse starts. We’re probably staying two hours after the eclipse will be done.

There’s some special things that we can occasionally see during our regular evening hours. Saturn is up around 3 o’clock in the morning now, so Saturn will be up half way through the time. Saturn is beautiful. You can see the rings, and some of the big moons. It’s a really nice planet to observe. We also might see Venus. Venus is something that we haven’t been able to see in the evening, so Venus will arrive about 5 o’clock. Of course, it’s an opportunity to see other constellations.

DH: Has the observatory hosted similar events during other eclipses?

MW: We have had events for solar eclipses. We’ve watched comets that have come by. While I’ve been manager, we’ve had a couple of events. We had an open day in October 2009 where we watched the LCROSS, Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. That was a station that crashed into the moon. It was a big event that NASA was sending a spaceship, and it was going to deliberately crash into the moon to see if there was water. We had an event here to watch that, because we were supposed to see a balloon when the spaceship hit. We had about 50 people come out. That was around 6 o’clock on the morning of Oct. 9 last year. We didn’t get to see it directly because it was cloudy, but we watched it on NASA TV. It was kind of neat. They showed video as it got closer and closer and closer until it disappeared, and you saw the balloon, and they did discover water. They found there is a significant amount of frozen water on the moon, so it was kind of a historical event.

DH: Have you noticed more people attending the events during the past couple of years?

MW: I have noticed an increasing number of people are learning about (the observatory). Our biggest challenge is that nobody knows we exist. I can’t count how many people have come up and said, ‘I’ve lived in DeKalb for 25 years, and I didn’t know we had an observatory.’ The same with NIU students. They’ve said, ‘It’s my senior year, and I didn’t know we had one.’ A lot of people like it. It’s pretty amazing what we can see. It’s very cool, and it’s just a matter of people learning about it. We’re always trying to spread the word.

DH: Explain some of the equipment that is here at the observatory.

MW: There’s a 14-inch reflecting telescope. On the side of it, we have an 85-millimeter refracting telescope. This equipment is about 10 years old. It was purchased through a grant that the manager in 2000 received. It all cost about $14,000. It has an auto navigate system. We can tell it where to go. We can tell it to look at certain coordinates, and it will go there. It has that ability. We also have imaging capabilities. We’ll be taking pictures throughout the eclipse. Hopefully, we will be able to put those pictures on our website after.

We also look at the sun sometimes. We have a solar filter on one of our telescopes. If people make an appointment to come out in the daytime, we will show them the sun. It can be kind of nice, because there’s an increasing number of sunspots.

DH: How far out will the telescope allow a person to see?

MW: That depends on the brightness of the object. In terms of distance, one of the most distant objects we regularly look at is the Andromeda galaxy, which is about 2.5 million light years away. It’s pretty bright. Bright enough where we can see it. Most of the things we see exist in the Milky Way galaxy, stars, nebula and other planets within our galaxy. The Andromeda galaxy is a completely different galaxy, trillions of miles away from our solar system.

DH: What is a good time of year for people to stargaze?

MW: Time doesn’t matter. There are advantages to all seasons. Summer is advantageous because it’s more comfortable to be outside after dark. The disadvantage is it gets dark quite a bit later. In the winter, it gets dark fairly early, so that’s convenient, but it’s very cold. Conditions for observing really depend. You can have great conditions in mid summer, fall and winter. The weather is very fickle. Basically all year round, there’s something to see. There’s always something new. It changes continuously.

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