Look to The Skies for a Different Perspective on the World Around You

‘It’s Full of Stars!’
Mark Wallheiser
Learn what’s happening in the night sky during monthly free shows at the Downtown Digital Dome Theatre and Planetarium sponsored by the Tallahassee Astronomical Society.

In the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” astronaut Dave Bowman stared into the abyss of the featureless black monolith and gasped. “My God, it’s full of stars!” he exclaimed.

But you don’t have to travel through a wormhole in order to see the wonders of the universe. You can just lay back and enjoy the show from your own backyard. You can go to a planetarium. Or you could hang out with the Tallahassee Astronomical Society. 

Bringing the cosmos into focus is the group’s mission, according to Ken Kopczynski, one of the group’s coordinators. The group hosts a free planetarium show at the Downtown Digital Dome Theatre and Planetarium at the Challenger Learning Center the first Saturday of each month at 10 a.m. They’ve been doing that for the past seven years, and one of the group’s board members writes the program for the show, which takes the viewer on a tour of the sky over Tallahassee for that particular month. Later that evening the planetarium visitors meet at Lake Ella to review what they learned that morning. The club also hosts “star parties” in local schools and parks, such as Maclay Gardens and Mission San Luis. 

“I also do a lot of sidewalk astronomy, if there’s an event going on, or Saturn is out. It has a ‘wow’ factor. Eighty percent of the people who see Saturn for the first time will say ‘wow,’ ” Kopczynski said.

There’s no shortage of the “wow” factor in astronomy. Budding stargazers just have to know what to look for, when to look for it and where to find it among billions of stars. 

This time of year, you will be looking away from the center of the Milky Way galaxy and into deep space. Here, there are plenty of nebulae — interstellar clouds and dust — to look for, such as the Orion Nebula (located in the Orion constellation) and M41, a star cluster in the Canis Major constellation. These, and many other deep space objects are on what’s known as the Messier List, named after 18th-century French astronomer and comet hunter Charles Messier. That’s what the “M” stands for in certain stellar designations, Kopczynski said. For example, the Orion Nebula is M42.

There are more than 100 objects on the Messier list, and finding all of them without the aid of modern devices is a badge of honor for the amateur astronomer, Kopczynski said.

“The rite of passage for amateur observers is to see all 110 of these deep space objects using star charts — no electronics,” he said. “It forces you to learn the sky and how to use star charts.”

The group’s main stargazing site is Cypress Landing, a Leon County public boat ramp park, located on Lake Miccosukee east of Tallahassee near Monticello. Here, they have a 20-foot by 30-foot pad of crushed oyster shells members can use as a platform for their telescopes. There’s also a small observatory nearby that houses a compact, 14-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope mounted on a Losmandy Titan equatorial mount. A special camera, made by Malin Space Science Systems, amps up the light-gathering capability of the 14-inch scope by a factor of 10, essentially making it a 140-inch lens. The camera image is fed to a computer screen, or a VDT, and renders stars and galaxies in amazing color.

“It’s not quite Hubble quality, but it’s really beautiful,” Kopczynski said. “The difference between looking in the eyepiece and the Malin cam is like night and day. In order for a visual telescope to see vivid colors it has to get into the 20-inch range, so these cameras are amazing.”

It’s a strategic spot to make observations, because there are few trees and 80 percent of the sky is visible. 

“The problem with going west is it puts Tallahassee’s light pollution to the east. Our site in Monticello is east of the city light glare,” Kopczynski said. “Out there, the light dome is in the west, but it’s not a problem because everything is setting into that dome so you have the opportunity to watch it before it goes there.”

No matter how you do it, staring at the cosmos is the next best thing to being there — which is good, because we’re not actually going there anytime soon. It’s just one of the questions that pops up whenever he does public outreach: “Can we travel to the stars?” Others are, “Have you seen a UFO” and “Do you think aliens are coming here?”

“I’m a child of the space race, Star Wars, etc., and we have this expectation of traveling through the stars, and if there is life,” he said. “I see (Unidentified Flying Objects) all the time — that is, until I identify them. Aliens are a different story. When you think about the distance between stars, it isn’t possible to travel between stars because it is so great.”

Here’s how it works. Light travels at 186,000 miles a second. The closest star (aside from our own sun) is Proxmia Centauri, and it is four light-years away. That means it takes the light from that star four years to reach us. (By comparison, the sun is a mere 93 million miles away, and its light takes nine minutes to reach Earth).

Light speed might be manageable for the Starship Enterprise, but the fastest object humans have put in space so far is a solar observation satellite that used the gravity of the sun to zip along at 60,000 miles an hour. 

“It’s very fast on the interstate, very fast, but in space, it’s very slow. If we traveled at that speed it would take 10,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri. Forget traveling through space, it ain’t going to happen … people don’t want to hear that. But that’s OK,” Kopczynski said.

Another popular question involves our nearest neighbor, the moon. On a clear night the mountains, craters and shadows can be seen distinctly, even with a simple pair of binoculars. It looks so close, one would think we could see more. But it’s not possible.

“Lot of times people say, ‘Can you see the flags or the landing sites on the moon?’ Well, even the Hubble can’t see that,” he said. “It’s really fun when you’re looking at Venus and it looks like a crescent moon. The kids will say it’s the moon, and you say no, (even though) it looks like the moon, it’s not.”

That being said, there are lots of cool things to keep an eye out for. The occasional bolide meteor, for example. Or, satellites zipping across the starfield. And, once in a blue moon, something extraordinary happens.

“The coolest thing I’ve seen was when Skylab burned up,” he said, referring to the abandoned NASA spacelab that re-entered the atmosphere in 1979. “It made a last pass over Florida, and I was in South Florida and this thing came in. It was the size of 10 full moons, blue, white, red and orange; coolest thing in terms of seeing something burn up in the atmosphere.”

And yes, there are astronomy “apps” for the layperson to download to their smartphone or tablet devices. Kopczynski has a good chuckle over these things, because even though they enable a novice to identify certain objects, the person using such an app or device could be missing the point entirely.

“The ironic thing is, you are looking at the pad instead of looking at the sky,” he said.


Look to the Stars

Information about Tallahassee Astronomical Society news and upcoming events can be found at stargazers.org.

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