Before going to the to St. Ambrose University’s Menke Observatory, the only star party I’ve ever been to was on a gravel road somewhere outside the Davenport city limits. Menke offered a more powerful experience.
Whenever a group of people get together and go to a dark place to look at celestial objects, they are attending a star party. When I was young, and my friends and I first gained the freedom that having a driving permit and a car produces, we used to drive far enough from the city that we could observe the night sky without all the light pollution. All we had were binoculars and a will to stare up at objects far away, so we weren’t comprehending the actual distance between them.
We did this numerous times, but the first was the best. On those nights I would have loved having the opportunity to view these objects through a powerful telescope. So when I read that the university I am attending had its own observatory, I jumped at the chance to go.
I looked through the calendar and noticed the school had its own star parties, but it would be the last one. So I made plans to go, gathered the address and some notes on what to bring and what not to bring, and I waited. I only had a few items on the list. I had binoculars and a camera. I learned that only red lights can be used during night sky viewing events. Red-colored light doesn’t inhibit the eye from adjusting to the night. People use what’s called an astronomy flashlight when viewing things like star charts and equipment settings. With a few of the pertinent items and a basic knowledge of astronomy, I set out to go.
Once I pulled up to the road that leads to the Wapsi River Environmental Education Center, I felt like I just arrived at camp grounds, with its forest outcroppings and picturesque feel. It was about 7:50 p.m. and the sun was just going down in the west. The grass parking lot was much bigger than I thought it would be. Plenty of parking I thought.
I gathered my recording device and camera, and started up to the observatory. From the parking lot, it’s a few minutes’ walk on a dirt path to the viewing center. Looking forward past the observatory, the sun created beautiful blue, pink and orange hues through the trees. Sunsets at the end of summer can be so beautiful. If that would have been the only sight I saw that night, I wouldn’t have gone home unhappy.
The observatory is made up of two pale green buildings, both with white trim and white doors. One of the buildings is equipped with a 16 and-a-a-half foot-wide domed structure, with a shutter opening that can be moved to view any part of the night sky. The telescope housed in this building is a 14-inch Cassegrain-Newtonian reflector
Shortly after I pulled up, St. Ambrose University professor of astronomy, Dr. Robert Mitchell, showed up. He has been at St. Ambrose since 2001. Before anyone else came to the observatory, I got a personal tour of sorts. It was a neat experience, and one I would enjoy doing many more times in the future.
“We have star parties out here once a month from May to September,” Dr. Mitchell said. “And I’ll also open it up for special request for scout groups, astronomy clubs or exchange clubs.”
It quickly becomes obvious he has a wealth of knowledge about astronomy and the observatory itself.
Dr. Mitchell started out by explaining that the St. Ambrose Menke Observatory had at one time been on campus.
“The original observatory was built on campus, dating back to the early 60’s (1962),” Mitchell said. “That particular observatory was torn down in 1982 to make room for one of our current buildings, and the telescopes were put in storage until a much darker site was chosen. You don’t have to worry about city lights out here.”
The original observatory had been torn down to make room for a new physical education building. Not until 1994 did they pick a new spot for the Wapsi River Environmental Educational Center near Dixon, Iowa. After dedicating this spot, the observatory was to be named in honor of a former St. Ambrose University President, Monsignor Sebastian G. Menke. He was president from 1964 – 1972. Years of studying stars and planets led him to create the original observatory.
The observatory is ideal for enthusiastic amateur astronomers and professionals alike. The star parties allow for viewing the heavens with other like-minded people. It’s my idea of a good time. Even when at first the night sky was too cloudy to view through the telescopes, there is still much to learn about astronomy.
This night, a group of young students, some from other countries, showed up and took a tour of the facilities. We all enjoyed about a half-hour question-and-answer session with Dr. Mitchell.
He was asked what he thought of Pluto being designated a non-planet.
“Personally, whether you call it a planet, a dwarf planet, or plutoid, or whatever, it’s still an important part of the solar system,” Dr. Mitchell said. “And let’s be honest with ourselves, the universe is under no obligation to conform itself to our means of classifying things.”
He listed his top three misconceptions about astronomy. The first example given was that the moon isn’t actually made of cheese. It was probably the only disappointing moment of the whole night.
“One popular misconception is that some people think the reason we have summer on Earth is because it is closer to the sun at that time,” Dr. Mitchell said. “And that we’re farther away from the sun in the winter. That’s not at all the case. The only reason the Earth has seasons is because our axis is tilted.”
After the question and answer session, we journeyed outside to the grassy area in front of the observatory. For about 10 minutes Dr. Mitchell used a laser pointer to point at the summer triangle.
“The summer triangle is made of three of the brightest stars visible in the summer sky: Vega, Deneb and Altair,” Dr. Mitchell said. “That is the great big triangle straight up in the sky.”
After this we all went into the second facility at Menke. Housing two Newtonian reflectors—one 14-inch and 12-inch—this building is about the size of a small garage. The telescopes are tall enough to make it hard to move when more than four people stand in the building.
He pointed out a set of stars that to the naked eye look like they are two stars, but there is a catch.
“If you look at it in this telescope, it’s actually three stars,” Dr. Mitchell said. “They are called Mizar and Alcor.”
To the human eye, it’s easy to mistake Mizar and Alcor as one star. However, without a telescope you won’t notice that Mizar is actually more than one star itself. So what can look like one star, is actually three stars.
Although this is the only time I had a chance to gaze through any of the telescopes, it has left me wanting more. I feel lucky to have opportunities like this through our school.
Due to the growth of light pollution, dark viewing locations are even harder to find than they used to be. People living in a populated city will find it hard to view objects in the night sky, especially with unaided eyes. We city-dwellers can see the moon, a few planets, and 20 or more stars, but not much more.
For those staying in the Quad-Cities, St. Ambrose University’s Menke Observatory is far enough away from the light pollution to allow for excellent viewing, but close enough to make it a few hour affair. That is, as long as the weather is permitting.