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Summer Escape: Stargazing

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Posted on August 13, 2012 | Blog Category:
By Lauren Davidson



My Vermont summer is rapidly coming to a close, and with that, I am happy that I finally made it to one of the most elusive places on my list: the roof of Bicentennial Hall on the Middlebury College campus. The looming presence of the building is one that I know very well, but its top floor is another story.

One may not think the roof is particularly hard to get to, but it is nearly always locked for security purposes. It is opened only for special occasions and astronomy classes. I say nearly always because on rare occasions the roof will be left unsecured; it then serves as a haven for curious college students willing to take the risk of being caught by campus safety.

Always hesitant to be caught and often avoiding hard science classes, it is needless to say that I had never experienced the views from the top of the building. But its presence always sparked my curiosity. The powerful telescopes and uninterrupted views would provide a window unlike any other.

So when the infrequent opportunity to view the stars from the top of BiHall arose last week, I jumped at it. I would finally get to see what all the hype was about.

Space, and all of its infinite possibilities, is the subject of conversation on a much larger, national level, too. With the landing of NASA’s newest project, the Mars rover Curiosity, people are once again being made aware of the mysteries of space. After years of discussion on whether the space program is deserving of federal funds, the public is coming around to supporting NASA after this successful mission. Has science become cool again?

With the world primarily focused on the Olympics, featuring the pinnacle of human physical ability, perhaps Curiosity can remind us of the possibilities of the human mind. And on a much more tiny scale, without spending billions of dollars, one can be reminded of this by simply taking the elevator up to the roof of BiHall on a special Wednesday night.

Stepping out onto the roof I realized that the Vermont sky is like no other. The wonders of the crystal clear views that we have privilege to view are multiplied at such heights. I was able to count the lights from the ground. There were only five visible. The little man-made distraction is specific to Vermont; it would be incomprehensible in cities and even in the suburbs.

In addition to the dark skyline, stargazers had access to amazing telescopes to further enhance the views. Four different telescopes, including the large hub, were pointed at different celestial bodies millions of light years away. To think, all on top of a roof that I have spent numerous hours under.

Maps of the constellations were also available, explaining the brightness and magnitudes of the stars so easily visible above. The numbers on the map, as you could imagine, were extremely specific. Giving precise values to the stars was an interesting juxtaposition for me — beauty can interact with science.

One of the constellations a telescope was focused on was Messier 13, also known as Hercules Globular Cluster, which is made up of about 300,000 stars in the constellation of Hercules. Barely seen with the naked eye on a very clear night, the telescope focused in on the cluster that is 145 light years in diameter and 25,100 light years away from the spot from which I was looking.

Seeing the speckling blobs through the eyepiece of the telescope, it was hard to comprehend the numbers that they were telling me. How old is this thing and how many miles did its light travel to meet my eye? These numbers are far more impressive than any Olympic record.

While I have had many new summer experiences during my time in Vermont, this one I was particularly fond of. In talking about ways to “escape,” space offers the ultimate form of freedom. A view of the stars can remind us of our place. Whether perched on top of a mountain or the roof of a building, the stars at night are a great reminder of the innate beauty of nature.

Because of this realization, I can now understand the “science is cool” attitude. And although I have not invested years of my life into crafting a rover set for a distant land, I can begin to understand the passion of those working in the space program.

And all of this possibility is located right on top of a building I see every day. A familiar place can provide you with some pretty foreign sights.

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