From double and triple stars to navigation tactics all the way to the Andromeda galaxy, the Warkoczewski Observatory's Friday night stargazing provides education and entertainment atop Royall Hall. They're currently gearing up for the Venus Transit tomorrow afternoon starting at 4 p.m. (more infomation below).
I headed there last Friday with a friend of mine, another former alumnus of UMKC who regretted never checking it out. We left Hyde Park at dusk, somewhat unsure of exactly where to go but ready to see stars. After parking in the Royall Garage and wondering around the fourth floor for a bit, we finally spotted the sign and slight staircase up to the roof, and climbed up.
A dozen people sat quietly chatting and waiting for the light to die down, and we immediately ran into Joe Wright, former president and active member of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City (ASKC). Joe, who was president of the society for seven years in a row, began his informative and interesting astronomical teachings.
He began by letting us all catch a glimpse of Venus on the horizon. Then he positioned myself, my friend, and himself to illustrate the way that Venus, Earth, and the Sun move around each other. Because other planets are past us, in terms of the Sun, we always see them as a full disk. Mercury and Venus, however, are at times blocked or partially blocked by the sun, so they appear in phases, like the moon.
"That was one of the nails in the coffin for the earth centered universe, or geocentric universe," Joe explained. "The only way we can see Venus and Mercury in phase is if it's in between us and the Sun, going around the sun."
After our Venus lesson, it had finally gotten dark enough to "go to the moon," as Joe put it. As observers began to peer through the lens, the wonderment was audible--"oohs" and "ahs" for each viewer. I prepared myself for, well, the moon, but it's almost indescribable. Even the best photographs don't compare to seeing it through a professional telescope. Every crack and craggy ridge was in full detail. I asked Joe why the moon looks so full on some nights.
"That's an optical illusion. When it's near the the horizon you have foreground objects, so your scale perspective gets out of whack, whereas when it's overhead there aren't foreground objects," he said. "What you can do is get a paper towel roll or a ruler with millimeters on it, and measure the size. Measure it later that same evening, and you'll realize it's always the same size."
Joe went on to explain how telescopes work. Warko has a Newtonian telescope, which uses a large curved mirror at the very base to collect and focus the light, then reflects it toward another slanted mirror at the front of the telescope. The slant sends the focused image horizontally to the final scope, where it is delivered to your eye.
"The thing about mirrors is that you can make them big," Joe explained. "They have the support behind it. If it was a magnifying glass, you'd have to have a super structure around it to hold it. The largest refractor is 42 to 48 inches, whereas the largest reflector is about 30 feet across. Think of it this way: if you wanted to collect money from the sky would you want to use a Dixie cup, or a barrel?"
Joe's speaking style and enthusiasm for his subject end up in a lot of these types of metaphors, making large concepts more graspable. Throughout the evening, we end up talking about double stars feeding off energy like twins in utero to describing constellations as a form of navigation and inspiration for slaves in the 1800's.
As we scope out Mars and Saturn, we're instructed to look just to the side of the planet and use our peripheral vision to check out more detail.
"When you don't look directly at the star (or planet) you're viewing, sometimes more detail comes into focus. We use this when we're looking at faint objects like the Hercules star cluster, you can start to see individual stars in the cluster by using this tactic," Joe said.
Sure enough, when I get a chance to peek at Saturn, it's initially just a silhouette, but by looking to the side I'm able to glimpse its individual rings, and even other stars surrounding it.
When asked about what makes a star brighter or fainter, we learn that the "twinkle, twinkle" rhyme applies to real stars, too. Stars are much farther away than planets, obviously--light years away. They're a pinpoint of light, as opposed to planets, which can be seen as a column of light. The atmosphere has a large deal to do with the twinkling effect: as it changes and effects the view of the star, it 'twinkles.'
We end up being able to see the moon, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, the Vega Star, and the Little and Big Dippers, each with its own informational tour of sorts by Joe.
As the evening wraps up, Joe asks me to look to the base of the 'scope. We shine a flashlight on the gold ring, wiping dust off and slowly reading the Psalm printed around it:
For a thousand years in thy sight or as yesterday, which is past, the heavens shall confess thy wonders, O Lord.
ASKC is certainly keeping their eyes on the heavens, and reaching out to others to do the same. In addition to their Friday nights at Warko, they use their own Powell Observatory in Louisburg, Kansas on Saturdays, which is also open to the public.
Right now, though, they're gearing up for the Venus transit on June 5th at Warko. Starting in the afternoon and running until sunset, they'll be watching Venus cross the Sun. We'll be sharing audio from the event and speaking with Joe Wright as well as Dr. Daniel McIntosh, director of Warkoczewski Observatory, on Wednesday's show.
Catch the Venus transit Tuesday afternoon - starting at 4pm, observers can gather at UMKC's Royall Hall (5100 Rockhill Rd., free parking). Enter Royall Hall and take the staircase on the eastern side up to the fourth floor. The transit begins at 5:04pm and will last until the sun sets.
For more places to check out this astronomical event, look here.
Be careful to protect your eyes during this event. Check out tip for eye protection here.