Eyes on the skies

DeKALB – A little girl stood at the bottom of a metal ladder, impatiently shuffling from one foot to another as she waited her turn to peer through the massive telescope.

The girl was among hundreds who gathered at the Northern Illinois University observatory June 5 to get a glimpse of the planet Venus as it crossed the face of the sun, a rare astronomical event that isn’t expected to happen again for 105 years.

Gene Savory of Malta said he was there because “this doesn’t happen that often.”

“My brother told me it was just going to be a little black dot, but I wanted to see it,” Cat Nefstead of Steward said.

Exploring the travel habits of the planet second closest to our sun gave many first-time visitors the chance to discover the observatory itself, which manager Matt Wiesner refers to as “one of the best kept secrets at NIU.”

“People are always coming up to me and telling me they didn’t know it was here,” he said. “We love having people visit. There is always something neat to see.”

“It’s a great resource to have here,” first-time visitor John Hulseberg of Sycamore said.

Hulseberg and his wife, Laura, took their three small children to witness the once-in-a-lifetime transit of Venus. According to its website, the observatory is intended to educate not only NIU students but the community at large.

The observatory, part of NIU’s Department of Physics, is located in a silver dome at the top of Davis Hall, at the intersection of Normal and Locust streets on the NIU campus. While visitors can take an elevator up the first five floors of the building, they must then traverse a series of narrowing staircases to reach the observatory on the ninth floor.

The observatory was built in 1965 and rests on a pair of hydraulic cylinders, which allow the floor to be raised and lowered for better viewing.

For special events like the transit of Venus, when the narrow, winding stairwell is filled with visitors, groups of about 20 are ushered into the observatory at a time. Once inside, visitors line the circular room and take turns climbing a half-dozen metal steps to peer through the telescope at the heavens above.

On occasions when it’s not so busy, visitors can push a button in the waiting room that leads into the observatory or knock on the observatory’s trap door – which is always closed so those inside can move around – to gain access.

Wiesner, who directs groups, explains to visitors what they’re looking at and answers questions, said private groups normally get an hour or an hour and a half in the observatory.

The observatory houses a Celestron 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, a TeleVue 85mm refracting telescope, a Losmandy G-11 equatorial mount and various astrophotography equipment, including a Pentium computer, a CCD camera and two 35mm cameras.

To help visitors figure out what they’re viewing, the observatory has several star charts and maps, as well as “The Sky” star-finding software and an astrophotography calculation program on its computer.

The observatory also has a mobile telescope, which can be used in any dark place for public events. It was constructed by former DHO manager Laura Layton and uses a Dobsonian mount which can be transported in the back of a vehicle. On Oct. 7, 2009, the mobile telescope was used at an event at the White House.

NIU physics professor David Hedin, who is responsible for purchasing telescopes for the department, said NIU’s first telescope, purchased in 1960, wasn’t built properly. A  research telescope should be grounded to the earth and the building constructed around it, he said. Because NIU’s telescope is on top of a six-story building, Hedin said it sways slightly. Since the telescope can’t be locked down to be rock solid, it is not suitable for scientific research.

Which is fine with amateur stargazers, many of whom said they’ll definitely go back.

“Now we know what to expect,” Laura Hulseberg said.

“It’s pretty cool,” Bethany Sweceney of DeKalb said. “It seems like everyone was able to get up there.”

The observatory is free and open to the public from 7 to 11 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays during the school year. From May 11 to Aug. 27, it is open by appointment. To make an appointment or for more information, call 815-753-1305, email observatory@niu.edu or visit www.niu.edu/physics/observatory.

Wiesener said that 95 percent of the viewings are held at night when, weather permitting, more of the sky is visible.

Loading more