Monday, October 5, 2015

GMU Observatory, the Ring Nebula and the 18th Century

Tonight we visited the observatory at George Mason University for an opportunity to see the night sky. The event had been canceled the week before due to weather, but this autumn evening proved to be crisp, cold, and clear.

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When we first arrived we assembled in a room at the bottom of the tower for a talk on the solar system about the latest research. Then we piled into the elevator for a ride to the top where their primary telescope was housed...a 32" Richey-Cretein!  
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By now it was dark, the roof had been opened and we could easily see a sky full of stars. While waiting our turn, it was most unfortunate that other guests did not hear that for optimum viewing through the telescope, all light producing devices should be put away. We needed to accustomize our eyes to the dark. If any light is around, our eyes would not be prepared to view the dark reaches of space.  Because of this they only a dark light on in the tower. However several guests thought they'd remedy the lack of light by turning on the lights on their cell phones. =/
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As a result, some of the guests could not see the intended target, the Ring Nebula.  A ring nebula is the expanding outer layers of a dying star. My favorite part of the experience (because I was one of those who couldn't see it even though I tried to avert my eyes from those cell phones) was learning about its 18th century connection! This ring nebula was discovered in 1779 by the French astronomer Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix who wrote "a dull nebula, but perfectly outlined; as large as Jupiter and resembles a planet which is fading." Days later another French astronomer, Charles Messier, discovered it on his own while officially cataloging the night sky. He assigned it the name, Messier 57.

"...discovered when looking for the Comet of 1779...it seems that this patch of light, which is round, must be composed of very small stars: with the best telescopes it is impossible to distinguish them; there stays only a suspicion that they are there." (January 31, 1779, Charles Messier)

Resources:

https://cos.gmu.edu/observatory/

http://physics.gmu.edu/~hgeller/observatory.html

http://hubblesite.org/reference_desk/faq/answer.php.id=34&cat=nebulae

http://messier.seds.org/m/m057.html

http://messier.seds.org/xtra/history/biograph.html

http://www.seasky.org/space-exploration/astronomers-charles-messier.html

it seems that this patch of light, which is round, must be composed of very small stars: with the best telescopes it is impossible to distinguish them; there stays only a suspicion that they are there

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