Public welcome to view Saturn

Wednesday, January 26, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:29 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

No one is getting married, but rings will be the main topic of conversation tonight at Laws Observatory.

Saturn’s rings, that is.

The Central Missouri Astronomical Association will host a viewing of the faraway planet at 8 p.m. in the observatory, located in MU’s physics building. The event is free and open to the public.

Randy Durk, treasurer of the CMAA, said the observatory’s high-powered telescope offers an impressive view of the rings surrounding Saturn.

“Everyone looks at them and says ‘Wow, that’s just so cool,’ ” said Durk, an amateur astronomer.

Saturn has been drawing attention lately because of the Cassini-Huygens Mission launched in 1997. The Cassini orbiter has been streaming information from Saturn since arriving there at the end of June. More recently, the European-made Huygens probe landed on Titan, the largest of Saturn’s 33 known moons.

The probe has provided some of the most detailed information gathered about the moon. Durk expects the recent media attention to result in heightened interest about the planet, but the weather and sky conditions will ultimately determine how many people participate in the viewing.

When visible, Saturn appears as a dull yellow star in the eastern sky around 7 or 8 p.m., but spotting the planet usually requires the sharp eye of a seasoned astronomy buff.

The view from Laws Observatory, though, is far from ideal.

Just south of the observatory, the MU Life Sciences Center obscures the southern sky, emitting light and heat that make observing the night sky a challenge.

“When planets get over the Life Sciences Center, heat radiating off the building makes the planets impossible to see,” Durk said. “It’s like looking down a highway in Texas during the summer, so we tell people to get there early before the planet rises about the building.”

Life sciences officials are sympathetic to those concerns but said they don’t have a ready solution.

“We understand the problem, and we want to be good neighbors,” said Mike Chippendale, the center’s senior associate director. “The Life Sciences Center is positioned in such a way that it blocks the southern sky, and there’s nothing we can do about that.”

Durk said he hopes the telescope will be relocated to a spot on the MU campus that would be more conducive to night viewing. Others, such as Charles Peterson, associate professor of astronomy at MU, share the same hope.

“We would love to be able to move the telescope,” Peterson said. Such a move, however, would require substantial funding that is not currently available.

Ideally, the telescope would reside where the sky is darkest, away from city lights. The growth of Columbia and MU has added numerous sources of light, such as the Life Sciences Center and Stankowski Field, which render the Laws Observatory telescope virtually useless in observing much of the night sky.

“The telescope is usable for bright objects, like the moon, Saturn or a comet,” Peterson said. “But faint objects, like star clusters and galaxies we could see 25 years ago, are not visible anymore.”

Even with the visibility problems, the CMAA viewings at the observatory are still educational and worthwhile, Durk said.

“We just want people to come out so we can push science,” said Durk, who added that the group’s weekly viewings are accessible to anyone, regardless of scientific knowledge.

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