Volunteer Writer: Emma Bowser
On Wednesday, April 19th, 2023, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth hosted the first star party since repairs on the Hirshfeld-Dowd Observatory were finished.
This observatory is the largest one in the South Coast area.
In 1978, Alan Hirshfeld started working at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth as a professor of physics and astronomy.
At the time, there was no observatory on campus grounds, so students had to use a small, portable telescope instead.
Later, Professor Hirshfeld found a larger telescope and began collaborating with Fred Law (a professor of the civil engineering department) to build an observatory to house it.
After the observatory was finished, the National Science Foundation granted funds for research-grade equipment to enhance the observatory’s capabilities.
In the 1990s, the telescope began to deteriorate due to age but was replaced by a newer one donated by a physics student that is currently installed and in use.
The star party began at 7:30 PM when the sun set and Venus began to rise.
After the sunset, many stars were visible to the naked eye, including Polaris (part of the Big Dipper constellation) and Betelgeuse (part of the Orion constellation).
The Astronomical Society of Northern New England (ASSNNE), which is an “all-volunteer non-profit educational organization founded in 1982 to promote public awareness of astronomy,” donated their time and allowed the university students attending the event to use the organization’s telescopes in order to see a variety of celestial bodies.
Pete Peterson (a member of ASSNNE) gave a talk at the beginning of the event about how important and fascinating astronomy is, as well as what would be visible in the night sky.
The main attractions of the night included Venus, Mars, the Orion Nebula, Messier 3, the Owl Nebula, Iota Cancri, Bode’s Galaxy, and the Whirlpool Galaxy. Venus and Mars were both visible to the naked eye, but the others needed to be viewed through a telescope in order to get a good look at them.
Venus was the brightest object in the sky since it reflects light. Like the moon, Venus has “phases,” and approximately 65% of it was lit up on the night of the star party.
Mars was also visible, but due to how far away it is from Earth, it was much harder to see. Those who did manage to find it, however, got to see the small white smudge that is the planet’s polar ice cap.
The Orion Nebula was quite easy to find with a little guidance and “is one of the youngest features of our galaxy.” The Orion Nebula is an area where stars are currently being formed, and it looks like a fuzzy spot through the telescope.
Messier 3 is a globular cluster and is 11 to 12 billion years old, with approximately 100,000 stars inside of it.
The Owl Nebula “provides a preview of the future fate of our own sun,” because the central star of this nebula is currently collapsing and turning into a white dwarf star. While it is half the size of our sun in terms of mass, it’s 100 times brighter.
Iota Cancri is a pair of stars that can appear to be different colors and are a great example for teaching about stellar temperature.
Bode’s Galaxy “has a supermassive blackhole in its center” and has a mass of 70,000,000 suns. The Whirlpool Galaxy, on the other hand, is actually a pair of galaxies that interact with each other. This creates a spiraling effect due to gravity.