Dearborn puts stars in students’ eyes

Suzanne Wardle

The “lord of the rings” was showing last weekend – not at a movie theater, but at Dearborn Observatory. The title denotes Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun, which will be visible until June or July through the Dearborn telescope.

Saturn wasn’t the only interstellar body on display Friday evening at Dearborn. About 20 people showed up to see the ringed planet, Jupiter and three of its four moons, and the Beehive Cluster, the birthplace of some stars.

“I’ve never seen Saturn with a telescope at all, so it was pretty amazing,” said Weinberg senior Victor Liu, who was visiting Dearborn for the second time. “Maybe not so many students know about (Dearborn), but it’s a great place.”

Every Friday from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., the observatory holds stargazing sessions for observers to examine planets and stars through its telescopes. Groups can make reservations for the first hour, and the second hour is an open house. Sessions are free.

Housed on North Campus, Dearborn features a 23-foot-long telescope with an 18-and-a-half-inch lens made in 1861.

Michael Smutko, a physics and astronomy lecturer who has been responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the telescope for the past three years, said stargazing sessions at Dearborn have been going on for as long as he can remember. Up to 50 people use the telescope on a clear night. Even more come when there is something special to see, such as comets or an eclipse.

Students in astronomy classes make up the bulk of viewers, Smutko said. Of the approximate 1,500 people who visit Dearborn each year, between 600 and 700 of them come because of class.

“By far its biggest use is education and outreach,” Smutko said. “It’s a fabulous training tool. Lots of universities don’t have this.”

Weinberg sophomore Nick Spear is among the Northwestern students who operate the telescope during viewing sessions. Spear, who has worked at Dearborn since last year, said all NU students should visit the observatory.

“At their doorstep they have the world’s nicest telescope,” Spear said.

The telescope is open to the public, too. Students from the gifted children program at Highland Elementary School in Skokie came to look through the telescope Friday. Highland teacher Jenny Greene said the telescope is a valuable asset to the children, who had been studying the solar system.

“What’s great is watching the kids interact with the (NU) students,” Greene said.

Spear and physics graduate student Genya Takeda operated the telescope Friday, positioning it so visitors could view different objects and offering information about what viewers saw. They also told viewers the history and dimensions of the telescope.

“I’ve seen stuff I’ve never seen before, like Saturn up close,” said Mike Elles, who was visiting his brother in Evanston. “I would come back if I lived here or visited here.”

Reach Suzanne Wardle at [email protected]