WU celebrates Year of Astronomy

Brian Allen

The International Year of Astronomy is to celebrate Galileo pointing his telescope toward the stars in 1609. Students can participate in the 400th anniversary at Washburn’s Crane Observatory during their spring open house nights. Visitors can view the universe through the observatory telescope and a couple of portable telescopes setup on the roof deck of Stoffer Science Hall.

The telescopes will be set up to view objects of interest in the night’s sky but it is an informal affair and a visitor can usually look at anything he or she cares to. The open house is family friendly, children are welcome and students might consider it an interesting cheap date. This week the planet Venus will be visible in the western sky at dusk; it can be seen with the naked eye and will be the brightest star in the sky. But visitors who go to the Crane Observatory’s open house on the 19th can see the second rock from the sun in detail as well as galaxy giants like the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades Star Cluster and the double star cluster of the Perseus Constellation.

The big Crane Observatory telescope is worth looking at as well as looking through. A classic bit of 1889 technology, the telescope is reminiscent of the Jules Vern era with its intricate brass gearing and large aiming hardware. Examining the tube closely will reveal where it was nicked during the infamous 1966 tornado. The telescope has been overhauled and is in good shape according to Brian Thomas of Washburn’s physics and astronomy department. The most interesting thing he reports seeing through the scope is the planet Uranus. Thomas explained that observers could see man-made objects like the space station, if they know where to look. But they better not blink; the Earth’s orbit is too fast to keep them in view for long.

When asked if he had seen a UFO, Thomas said “I have not seen one and the astronomy community has no record of one.” But he said the universe is too vast to absolutely rule them out.

Concerning the fate of the former planet Pluto: “you can look at it two ways, kids can learn the names of eight planets without dwarfs like Pluto or they can include it and the names of 60 more large asteroids in the Kuiper belt.” He also doesn’t see any scientific reasoning in astrology and believes the earth is safe from the near-earth orbit of asteroid Apophis.

Thomas encourages interested students to visit the Physics and Astronomy department because they are always looking for volunteers to help out in the observatory, and he said students who are considering physics as a major should enroll early, because the openings fill fast.