Student at SSU observatory telescopeAt Collins Observatory, Mars Views Delight Visitors

By WILLIAM DOWD

The North Shore Amateur Astronomy Club (NSAAC) and Salem State University host free stargazing nights in the Collins Observatory atop Meier Hall’s roof every Monday between September and May.

Salem State chemistry and physics professor Luke Conlin and NSAAC member Dennis Gudzevich run the free-to-the-public stargazing nights.

“I think everyone has looked up at the stars at some point and wondered about them -- what are they, and what they mean for our own significance in the bigger picture,” Conlin says. “Having an observatory on Salem State's campus provides a wonderful opportunity to do some of that wondering, as well as the tools to take a much closer look.”

During the regular season, observing nights draw between 20 and 60 people. Over the summer, they stop, largely because the sun sets late, and pick up again in the fall.

Conlin and Gudzevich, however, broke away from their hiatus when the pair staged a special “Planet Night.” Why? An astronomical opportunity: viewing Mars’ near “opposition,” when the rocky planet is closest to the Earth -- with the observatory’s 12-inch Classical Cassegrain/Newtonian telescope proved too enticing not to.

About 60 people squeezed into the domed observatory, standing shoulder to shoulder along the circular structure’s wall, and waited their turns to glimpse a handful of planetary objects before Mars’ anticipated 9:40 p.m. debut. For context’s sake, a Martian year equates to 687 Earth days.

“Mars is closer to Earth because Earth is passing by Mars as they go around the sun,” said Conlin, who holds a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from Tufts University. “When Earth passes by Mars, Mars and the sun will be on opposite sides of the Earth. This is called opposition.”

Gudzevich called the night’s turnout great. He fondly recalled witnessing the Hale-Bopp comet barrel into the inner solar system and captivate just about everyone with its Earth flyby in 1996-97.

“We had over 200 people come out one night to see the comet -- it was quite the night,” said Gudsevich. “You could see the comet turning and the debris coming off it.”

If viewing Mars constituted Monday night’s headliner, Jupiter, Saturn and Earth’s moon opened the roughly three-hour show.
Brunswick, Maine resident Oliver Van Campen, 14, said the crater-riddled moon’s surface enchanted him.
“I was kind of in disbelief,” said Van Campen. “You can get an outline of the moon’s craters with just your eyes, but they were so much clear(er) with the telescope. It was just ridiculous.”

Topsfield resident Jay McDougall heard WBUR broadcast the program’s details and decided to show up. “I didn’t even know this observatory existed,” said McDougall. “I know Harvard has stargazing nights, but it’s a little difficult to get down there.”
Like Van Campen, the moon put him under a spell. “The moon was really impressive, seeing its surface up that close –- with all those craters,” said McDougall. “It looks so lonely up there.”

At 463 million miles from Earth, Jupiter and three of its largest moons - Ganymede, Callisto and Europa - looked like cellular organisms placed under a biologist’s microscope when one peered into the observatory’s telescope. They viewed Jupiter’s bands of gas faintly swirl, and they also peered over Saturn’s rings and moons.

Mars finally emerged from clouds around 10 p.m. Gudzevich maneuvered the telescope over the red planet, and folks peered at what he and Conlin called Mars’ crater-littered highlands.

As Gudsevich operated the telescope, Conlin offered tidbits about Earth’s rocky kin to the night’s crowd: Mars’ atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide. Two tiny moons, Phobos and Delmo, rotate around the planet and like Earth, the planet possesses polar ice caps.

Mars’ surface, Conlin said, is home to Mt. Olympus Mons, the tallest known object in the solar system. He added that the massive volcano is three times taller than Mt. Everest, and Gudzevich chimed in, too, simply saying: “It’s about the size of France.”
William Dowd’s story with photography by David Sokol appears here with permission of the Salem Gazette/Wicked Local.