This year Danielle’s tenth birthday is upon us. I can hardly believe that she has reached the double digits in age. It seems like just yesterday that she was a bustling three-year old and we had just taken her to Disney World for the first time. Time really flies doesn’t it?
The theme for this year’s birthday celebration was the stars and our solar system. Danielle selected this because she has really shown an increasing interest in the cosmos from what she has learned in school. It really pleases me that she has such an interest. It reminds me of when she was my age, and I had a thirst for astronomy. I truly feel this might in fact be the bonding activity I have been looking to share with her. We are fortunate enough here in Lincoln, to have an observatory that is operated by the local astronomy club.
Danielle decided that she wanted visit this place for her birthday. I thought that was a wonderful idea. While I knew of its existence, I had not personally been there either. Kelli opted to stay behind and ensure that Danielle’s younger siblings (Preston, and Madison) went to bed at a decent hour, and I took Danielle and her five friends she had invited to the observatory.
I didn’t really know what to expect as this was my first visit as well. Hyde Observatory is located by a local lake on the east side of town. It is a beautiful area and we were all very excited about what we would experience. According to their website, they are the only observatory anywhere that is: built, furnished and operated entirely by donations, devoted exclusively to public viewing, completely free of admission charge, staffed only by volunteers. I must say the experience was incredible, and one I would love to repeat soon.
We first arrived at around 8pm. The sun was just beginning to get low in the sky. I wouldn’t really set until after 9pm. We went into their media area and were able to watch a couple of presentations. The first was a primer on the summer sky in Nebraska. It told us about the constellations and nebulae that were visible to us, and a brief history of their names. The kids seemed lost on this first presentation, and rightly so. After all they won’t get into much of the history or mythology until they are a little older. After this one ended there was a short break, and we all went to the observatory to get our first look at the telescopes.
The second presentation was much more entertaining to the kids. It was a brief documentary on the various telescopes that are in use to observe the universe. It was pretty cool to see the various tools we use to learn about the stars above us. I really had no idea that we had so many telescopes up in orbit. I just knew about Hubble, but apparently there are several others up there with it.
After this presentation we were told that the International Space Station was going to pass directly above us shortly. In fact, other than Venus, it was one of the first objects that was visible in the darkening sky. We were all encouraged to step outside to get a better field of view of this event. Everyone was eager to be the first to see it. Soon a bright point of light zoomed over a stand of pine trees. It moved quickly through the twilight sky from southwest to northeast. We were told that the station completes an orbit of the earth every 90 minutes. The kids really thought this was a neat experience.
After the station had passed, we all filed inside. Everyone was eager to see some extra terrestrial objects of the non-man-made variety. First up on our tour of the solar system was Venus. We learned that Venus goes through phases much like our moon where you will see more or less of the planet depending on the time of the month. In our case this particular evening, it appeared that the planet was about three-quarters full.
The next object in the darkening sky to view was the planet Saturn. For me this was the most extraordinary viewing of the evening. The amount of detail that was viewable was breathtaking. Saturn’s rings were clearly visible. They were nearly vertical, unlike most pictures I have seen where they were more horizontal. We could make out a
couple of its moons as well. All in all a very interesting viewing. An amusing anecdote was that every single one of the kids thought the image appeared “fake” to them. It looked like a drawing they said. I guess that is just a testament to how clear and detailed the planet appeared to us.
The last planet on our viewing list was Mars. It was very unlike what I expected. Instead of appearing red, it was very washed out and appeared white or bluish in color. The three planets we observed formed a roughly straight line from south to north in the western sky.
The next item we viewed was in the eastern sky, and it was a beautiful double star. It was called Albireo, and was a wonderful thing to behold. This was also a testament to the skill of the volunteers there. He managed to lock on to this colorful double star system without the aid of a finder’s scope. He said it was really lucky he was able to pin it down, but it appeared pretty skillful to me.
Our last viewing of the evening was the full moon as it rose into the night sky. Even with a special filter for viewing this bright object, it was still quite intense. That was a fine finale to the evening. Several of the kids even reported seeing multiple shooting stars as we were out there. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of those. What a wonderful outing this turned out to be. I can’t wait to get the chance to check out the night sky again at the observatory.