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Lifestyles -

July 21, 2012

Seeing Stars at SUNY Oneonta

Observatory offers a view of galaxies, planets far, far away.

Saturn (the planet, not the former car company) doesn't look like much through the eyepiece of a 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. Then the scope of what you are looking at sinks in.

Here you are, a small person on a small planet, staring out into space and looking at Saturn. You can see the rings and Titan, one of the moons. Unlike the Hollywood stars, Saturn looks like it looks in pictures.

And here it is, right in front of you.

Those moments of wonder by patrons are one of Jason Smolinski's favorite parts of the free public viewing nights at the State University College at Oneonta Observatory at College Camp.

"They come up here because they are curious. They hear 'big telescopes,' 'look at galaxies and star clusters,' and they think 'OK. Sounds good,'" Smolinski said, in a vocal cadence not dissimilar to Carl Sagan's.

"You show them the image and they're expecting to see the Hubble Space telescope: color images, high resolution, high magnification. So they see a smudge and think 'that's not very impressive.' But then you tell them the story.

"You point out a globular cluster, for instance, that contains hundreds of thousands of stars all packed together. People look at that and they say 'wow. that looks cool.' Then you tell them there are hundreds of thousands of stars in there. If we lived around one of those stars, our sky would be lit up, even at night. It would be just amazing.

"Telling them the stories, filling in the gaps and the details. I like that. They walk away with having learned something more than just looking at a pretty picture in a book."

On average 20 people monthly get to do more than look at a picture in a book. They also come from relatively far away. On a night in June, one couple drove from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Someviewers don't travel quite as far. Morris' Martha Mackey was a first-timer at the observatory.

"I've always had an interest in looking at the heavens," Mackey said.

Most nights, the heavens reveal themselves. Everything from Jupiter to the Orion Nebula have been observed. That night, the moon was large in the sky and was a lovely target.

Summer, however, is not the best season for seeing. True dark, which makes it possible to see smaller objects a greater distance away, doesn't happen until at least 10 p.m. The mosquitoes don't help, either. But the biggest impediment can't be overcome with a nap and some DEET.

"During the day," Smolinski explained, "the sun heats up the Earth. Then when we rotate to the night side, all that (heat) goes away. For the first hour or two after sunset, you're dealing with flickering images because the heat is rising up off the ground, escaping into the atmosphere. Just like looking over the surface of the hood of your car or on a road off in the distance on a hot day, it's really ripple-y."

Most of the big name observatories are in the West and Hawaii, where the air is clear most of the time and seasons are less of an issue. But Oneonta's winter weather has an upside when you want to see the stars.

"The cold air is nice and still so there is not a lot of warping," Smolinski said. "Winters are nice, but winters are also very cold," which is an issue when your telescope is housed in an uninsulated metal silo, like this one is.

"So summers are more pleasant and we wait for it to cool down. It's a trade-off. Wait a couple of hours and you get the rest of the night _ and it's not freezing."

There are just a few preparations would-be observers should make.

Prepare for the outdoors, which means bundling up because the night will only grow colder. Wear shoes that can get dirty.

Check the weather. If it's going to be cloudy at night, its probably going to be canceled. If the night will be clear, it's probably going to happen.

Mostly, however, all you need to bring is an open mind.

"Come up here and be willing to maybe step into a comfort zone that you're not familiar with. Step out of your comfort zone and learn a thing or two. Meet some new people. We can only have one person at (the eyepiece) a time so in general people talk to other people, getting to know them.

"There's not a whole lot of preparation, other than just being ready for the night and ready for the bugs and ready for the people. Other than that, I'll point the telescope and tell you what you're looking at."

No matter what the weather, there is no substitute for traveling out to the College Camp on a public viewing night, seeing parts of the universe with your own eyeballs, and learning about the wonders of space.

For more information, including a schedule, visit employees.oneonta.edu/smolinjp/observing�nights.html.

To get to the observatory, from the SUNY Oneonta Campus, take Bugbee Road to East Street. Turn left on East Street and proceed north a little more than a mile. Look for the College Camp sign. Turn left on Hoffman Road. The observatory is on the right near the top of the hill.

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