Seeing Stars

Seeing Stars

Whooooa!” exclaims a young boy sitting with his family during one of two Tuesday night shows at Yale’s Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium.

It’s an appropriate response to the topsy turvy ride we’re experiencing as the rounded ceiling zooms in quickly on Jupiter and its four circling moons, and he’s not the only one in awe. Most of the people in the all-ages crowd—with their heads tilted back for a full view of the constellations and planets projected on the ceiling—have looks of wonder (and big smiles) on their faces.

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Tuesday evening’s shows are two of three free shows held weekly at the facility, which is located off Prospect Street atop “Science Hill,” named for the abundance of science buildings and classes there. The other show takes place Sunday afternoons.

The program features a live planetarium show, with a brief tutorial of the constellations that are currently in the sky over New Haven, as well as a film. Oasis in Space is the current movie on Tuesday nights and Cycles of the Sun plays on Sundays; the selections change every month or so.

On clear Tuesday evenings, the public is invited to use the house telescopes for a visit with the open skies. Volunteers from Yale’s Astronomy Department are on hand to answer any questions about the stars, planets and nebulae—the dust clouds where stars are formed—above. The observatory is also sometimes open for special celestial events, like eclipses or comets, which are listed on Leitner’s website as they occur.

Even on cloudy nights, when poor visibility prevents telescope use (in addition to the website, you can also check Leitner’s Twitter feed for updated info), there’s still plenty of opportunity for learning with the in-house show.

“I feel a certain duty to share astronomy,” says Iva Momcheva, a post-doctoral student who often presents the live planetarium program. “It increases scientific literacy. I think everybody should know a little bit about the world around them.”

The universe, even. Sharing the wonders of nature, earthly or not, with non-scientists is what the program is all about. While the planetarium and observatory are both used on a regular basis for Yale astronomy courses and student research, there is often a much younger crowd on site. Director Michael Faison says school groups visit almost every day.

“We’re trying to inspire people,” says Faison, who is also a lecturer in the Astronomy Department. He tells me that a majority of his time is spent on educational programs because he believes so much in scientific outreach.

On the first Tuesdays of recent months, visitors have been able to travel into even deeper space with 7 p.m. public lectures given by Yale astronomers. Despite impressive credentials behind them, these lectures, like the public planetarium shows and star-watching sessions,  are meant to appeal to everyone.

At graduate student John Brewer’s talk on Feb. 5, “Searching for Other Earths,” the presentation revolved around the idea of habitable planets like our own. Hearing about the potential for extra-terrestrial life got the crowd riled up enough to ask questions for a good 25 minutes post-lecture. Faison says speakers are encouraged to keep their talks short, leaving plenty of time for discussion afterward.

When it comes to the stars, undiscovered planets, orbiting moons and black holes of our unimaginably expansive universe, there is so very much to discuss. “I think astronomy is really interesting because it deals with some of the really big questions,” Faison says. “What is our place in the universe?”

Sometimes a glance skyward, accompanied by a bit of cosmic education, is enough to remind each of us that we are part of something so much bigger; one inhabitant of one planet circling one of an uncountable number of brilliant stars.

Whooooa.

Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium
355 Prospect Street, New Haven (map)
Shows: Tues 7pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm
(203) 285-8840
Website | Twitter

Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.

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Cara McDonough has been a journalist for over ten years. She writes regularly about family, parenting, religion and other issues for The Huffington Post and chronicles daily life on her personal blog. She lives in New Haven with her husband, two children and two dogs.

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