Scanning the skies

Published 5:11 pm Saturday, May 15, 2010

It’s true that the heavens don’t play the part in human existence they once did.

Humans, much like using the North Star to travel the world’s seas, do not need the night sky for the practicality of living day to day.

That doesn’t mean they still can’t be a source of wonder and amazement and thanks to the Solifide Observatory, south of Austin we humans still get the chance to connect with the heavens.

The observatory doesn’t sit on a mountain, but rather on three acres of land along side County Road 29 and down a bit of gravel on 180th Street.

But the sky is vast and open when Mother Nature allows it by keeping the clouds at a distance. The best patches of sky to observe for Solifide hover in an arc from west to east on a southerly track. Anything north becomes obscured to a point by the light pollution of Austin itself.

That’s still three-quarters the sky and there is plenty to look at.

“It’s pretty cool to look at the moon,” said volunteer Keith Snyder last Saturday as he waited for the last vestiges of the days’ cloud cover to vacate the skies. “Especially for the kids because it’s something they can relate to.”

The silver-domed Solifide began as a private project of Dr. Eric Rachut. Both the land and the first telescope — a 10 inch refractor telescope — was a gift to the city from Dr. Rachut who was leaving Austin to take an out-of-state job and couldn’t take the telescope with him.

The premise of giving the observatory to the city was that it had to be used to provide public and free programs for the city.

In 2001 the telescope was replaced by a 16-inch refractor, donated by a friend of Rachut’s from Mason City, Iowa. The old telescope was sold and with the money earned, new computers and programs were purchased.

It’s somewhere between 8:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday, May 8 and night has largely taken over the sky, leaving just a thin swath on the western horizon as the last vestiges of the day.

The stars are beginning to come out, still dim against the darkening backdrop save for one bright object dominating the west — Venus.

The clouds have largely vanished save for a few lingering wisps that are still more than capable of obscuring the observable sky. It’s these clouds that Snyder, co-director of the Solifide, suspects is hiding another treat many come to see. Saturn.

Snyder continues scanning the area high in the southern sky when a car bringing the night’s first observers to the telescope. The car-load, consisting of Austin High Schoolers Camille Anderson, Heather Knutson, Taylor Osmundson, and Vanessa Pettitt.

“It’s for extra credit,” Anderson said. “We’ll have to write a paper on what we see.”

And they’re in luck. The clouds have left and a familiar speck in the sky has become visible. Snyder trains the telescope on Saturn. It’s rings are visible as well as two of its moons and it draws instant reactions from the students when they look through it.

“It’s fun to show people different things to look at,” Snyder said.

Snyder said Saturn, along with Jupiter and Mars are some of the more interesting and common things people like to look at along with the moon and its many craters.

Jeff Morrison was another visitor to the Solifide that night. Morrison started coming out to Solifide because of his interest in astronomy.

“You’re looking at light that left those objects tens of millions of years ago,” Morrison said.

The amount of visitors the Solifide usually gets hovers around eight to 12 people in a night, of course depending on sky conditions. Snyder admitted that the clouds earlier in the day may have contributed to less people coming out.

“Everybody was expecting clouds all day,” he said.

As to when they come out, it can be any time after 9 p.m. when the observatory opens up and that stream of people along with sky conditions determines where the telescope is pointed in a night.

“Someone will want to look at one thing and then somebody will want to look at something else,” Snyder said.

On a good night, what visitors can expect to see is nothing short of amazing.

“There’s the craters on the moon, rings around Saturn and cloud features,” Snyder said. “You can see galaxies millions of light years away.”

The observatory has also been privy to some of the biggest galactic events in recent memory including the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 when it assaulted Jupiter in 1994. While it didn’t get the chance to see the massive plumes kicked up by the impacts, the scars were visible.

“I was surprised,” Snyder said. “I figured the professionals would be able to see it, but I didn’t think someone in a backyard could see it.”

Solifide is open two days each month — the first corresponding with the open sky and the second with the arrival of the moon.

In the second weekend of August Solifide will host a star party where people can come out and spend the weekend making use of the observatories great eye.