August 27, 2011

Opportunity Of A Lifetime: Meyer-Womble Observatory


Lee Rannals for

Have you ever been hiking or been on a trip and seen an observatory in the distance, then immediately find yourself filled with curiosity as to what exactly takes place up there?  I have, and that curiosity led me to an invitation from Professor Robert Stencel of Denver University to satisfy that childlike intrigue.

While hiking up Mt. Evans on a Saturday morning I looked over at the same observatory I have been curious about since I was 12-years-old, the Meyer-Womble Observatory.  It sits an elevation of 14,148-feet and is accompanied by the highest paved road in North America.

This curiosity eventually led me to the generous hospitality of Professor Stencel, or as his students in the observatory referred to him as, "Dr. Bob".  He is the William Herschel Womble professor of Astronomy and Director of DU Observatories and heads up the research taking place at the observatory.

Once I received his invitation, it took no time at all for the anticipation of what I would see to set in.  After what felt like an eternity of waiting, my patience paid off and I was finally on that windy, moth-ridden road at night time about to embark on a memory that will never fade.

In just the short hour-long drive away from Denver's 93 degree heat, I found myself bundled up against the mountain's 40 degree temperature, accompanied by the most brilliant night sky I have ever seen.  At this moment, I knew I was creating a long-lasting memory.

Walking along the rocky-dirt road towards the observatory proved to be difficult with such a distraction above me, but I finally made it to the door of the observatory.

From there Brian Kloppenborg, a graduate student of Dr. Bob, greeted me and gave me a tour of the observatory while Professor Stencel calibrated the telescope.  If being able to get inside of an observatory and peek through a telescope isn't enough to get excited about, Kloppenborg made things even more exciting by giving me a tour of our celestial neighbors.

The tour had finally ran its course and the telescope was ready for viewing so I began my quest to get a closer look at what already seemed amazing to me standing at an altitude of above 14,000-feet.

Inside the heart of this observatory was a dual-aperture 28-inch telescope perched atop a single mount, featuring cameras that would make any photographer jealous. 

Any laymen, like myself, would assume the research was mostly done with one-eye closed while looking through the eyepiece of a telescope.  However, I immediately realized things have become a lot more complex since the days of Galileo.

Next to the massive telescope was a computer that contained software which makes Google Sky look like something out of a Fisher Price manual.

After listening to the astronomy jargon being spoken between Dr. Bob and the students in attendance, I heard metal start to crank against metal as the roof of the observatory began to move the opening for the telescope from one location to another. 

Once the dome-shaped roof had found its resting place, the retractable window for the telescope started opening even more.  Following this, the telescope moved into position very carefully.  It was after this commotion that I finally got to glance through something I had been so curious about since I was 12.

I closed one eye and pressed the other against the eyepiece, adjusted my head to bring everything into the center of my pupil, and there, faintly and clearly, I saw a nebula.  During this instance, I found myself feeling smaller than ever.  It took a telescope that has the equivalent of about a 15,000-millimeter lens for me to grasp a concept that has been taught to me since I was in elementary school:  Our Universe is big.

Once all philosophical questions and realizations had run their course through my head, Dr. Bob had already positioned the telescope to a different location in the sky and was ready for me to take another peak.  This time he had it positioned right on Vega. 

Vega, which is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra sitting at 25 light-years away from Earth, was right in the middle of my eye and blinding.  The magnificent power of this star was both unbelievable and scary at the same time.  I did not have to leave Earth to really grasp the energy this star had within its grasp.

Time had elapsed, and my endurance against the mountain air had met its match, so my body was letting me know I did not have the same strength as these astronomers.  My boyish curiosity was no match for the conditions these educated and passionate people face on a nightly basis.

However, Dr. Bob would not let me go without taking another glimpse through the telescope he had once again put into position for me.  He had a survey of the Milky Way sitting in the eye piece waiting for me, leaving me with yet another reminder of how incredibly small our planet is in the grand scheme of things.

Dr. Bob walked me out and I pursued down the dirt-rocky road back to my car, letting the moment I had just experienced sink in.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a memory that will accompany my thoughts each time I look up at the night sky forever.

Denver University's 131-year-old astronomy program offers an amazing opportunity for anyone interested in getting an education in the field. 


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