Nantucket, about 30 miles out to sea, is famous for many things; two of these that go together wonderfully are the clear, starry night skies and the fact that in 1818 Maria Mitchell was born here. Visiting families and “hometown” families alike can take advantage of these two fortunate circumstances as often as they like, and all that’s needed for an unforgettable experience is a cloudless, fogless night and a desire to have an extremely interesting learning experience.
Maria Mitchell, along with her six brothers and sisters, was taught astronomy and celestial navigation by her father. When he became a cashier at the Pacific National Bank, the family moved into the rooms on the second floor there, and Maria spent many hours in the observatory at the top of the building looking at the sky and studying constellations, galaxies, sunspots, nebulas, and satellites—small planets that revolve around largerplanets. The sky, in a way, was her life. On October 1, 1847, as a young woman, she discovered a new comet, for which she was awarded a medal by the king of Denmark, and after that she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Maria became the first female Professor of Astronomy (at Vassar College) and led the American Association for the Advancement of Women, which urged that higher education and voting were basic rights of women as well as men.
The Loines Observatory on Milk Street Extension, less than a mile out of Nantucket center, is maintained by Nantucket’s Maria Mitchell Association, and that’s where we suggest you go for your “See the Stars” family excursion. During the summer months the observatory is open to all on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights, with a Family Astronomy Night every Thursday from 8:30 to 10 pm. Dr. Vladimir Strelnitski, director of the astronomy program, along with a handful of his students, is prepared to help people understand what they’re seeing when they look up into the night sky.
For your trip to Loines Observatory it’s a good idea to take sweaters (nights are comfortably cool after dark on the island), binoculars if you have them, star charts if you want, and perhaps mosquito repellent. (Those pesky little creatures are sometimes out in force and at other times seem to have
gone elsewhere. A reminder: when you’re out on the deck of the observatory, watch for the fireflies as they mimic the stars with their flickering and glimmering.) The younger kids may need to be encouraged to take a nap in the afternoon, because it’s good to go to the observatory just as dark starts settling over the island so you can watch the sky go from blue to violet to deep purple to dark blue. That means going there sometime before 9 p.m., and it’s guaranteed that you’ll want to stay as long as you can, because spotting that first twinkling star is a thrill for grownups and children alike—and seeing the other stars and planets (and even a human-made satellite now and then) as they “come out” is an amazing experience, no matter how many times you’ve done it.
It’s fun to listen to the questions others ask as you gaze above and await your turn at one of the telescopes at Loines. One 5-year-old asked recently, “Where do the stars come from when they come out?” She was astonished to find out that yes, they are there all the time, even when we can’t see them—and their position in the sky changes in a predictable way. These simple gems of knowledge and the entire evening may well have laid the groundwork for a career in astronomy for that child. Dr. Strelnitski and his students are on hand to answer every single question, and this is one time that eavesdropping is encouraged—you can learn from the answers to the questions posed by others. It’s part of that scientific observation process that Maria Mitchell herself encouraged. She said:
Learn to observe.
The eye learns to see.
Open yours wide
to the revelations of nature.
Watch after sunset…
Watch before sunrise.
Very good advice indeed.
Is there anything your family needs to do to prepare for an evening of seeing stars? Not really, but there are resources that might make good “quiet-time” or rainy-day activities that will add to the knowledge you’ll get at the observatory. You can go to the Atheneum (where Maria Mitchell was
the very first librarian) and look up books and pictures, from introductory to complex, about astronomy. Find out what heavenly bodies are likely to be seen at the particular time of the year and month you are planning your observatory excursion. Will there be a full moon, or just a sliver? (The
brighter the moon, the fewer other celestial objects you’ll see; however, seeing the moon through a telescope or even binoculars can make the most sophisticated sky-watcher breathless.)
Dr. Strelnitski advises observatory visitors to arrive by 9 p.m., because that’s when he gives an introductory talk which, among other things, explains the history of astronomy including the invention of and principles behind the telescope. He also tells about what families are likely to observeon that particular night and explains briefly the evolution of stars and planetary systems. “If we will observe
on that night a planetary nebula, one of the last stages in the evolution of a star, for example” he says, “I will tell them about that.” And importantly, he says, “I give kid level explanations. No special homework is needed, really. All people need is an interest in astronomy. We will show them constellations, stars, nebulae, and so forth, through our four working telescopes.” There’s also an older telescope to look through, which will help children and their parents understand how the technology of astronomy is evolving. There’s no doubt that with the exciting exploration of Mars at this point in time, even the very young children are likely to get goosebumps as they learn about outer space.
What might you expect to see during an evening at Loines Observatory? It depends on when you go. In mid-July, that attention-getting Mars is getting lower and lower in the evening and Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system (about 88,000 miles in diameter) appears. Arcturus, that giant red star, is there and as the evening grows darker you’ll see the constellation it’s in, Boötes. You may see Venus, the brightest planet in the solar system, second in distance from the sun. You may see the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, perhaps the Milky Way, looking like a cloud of stars. And then there’s the moon. It rises and descends, fattens and slims down.
Something that makes one go goggle-eyed when looking at this familiar orb through a telescope is to observe how quickly it goes “out of the frame”—but never fear, there’s always someone there to refocus the ‘scope again for you. If anything can give a child a feeling for the movement of heavenly bodies, including the earth, it’s that easily-seen phenomenon. And when children begin to understand where and how big or small our planet is in relation to other objects in the endless sky,
this is important knowledge not only about astronomy but about who, what, and where “I am.”
One summer at Loines, visitors looking upward saw that magical phenomenon, the aurora borealis, or skylights in the northern hemisphere—luminous and slightly ghostly shapes streaming and moving “down” the sky looking for all the world like the shadows of giants walking. (And did you know that there’s also aurora australis, the same mystical sky-lights in the southern hemisphere?) No wonder primitive human beings ascribed great powers to the stars and night-sky events.
And finally, what does an evening at the Loines Observatory give a family that it didn’t have before? It provides an appreciation of the skies and our planet, as well as of the research and development that is going on in the exploration of space by human beings. It brings an enhanced regard for and love of nature and the beauty and splendor of the universe. Dr. Strelnitski is plainly excited at the possibility of inspiring children to become astronomers. He believes that many children are surprisingly well informed. But he and his staff of undergraduate students (who are selected to do advanced research for this program by the National Science Foundation) will answer any and all questions. “We try to be open to all, and give as many explanations as people need and ask for,” he says.
So plan for at least one family excursion to the Loines Observatory while you’re on the island. After
that, try a few trips out on your own, to Jetties Beach, perhaps, or on a quiet road in Sconset or Madaket. Or just lie out on your deck or open porch and get comfortable and quietly observe the ever-changing sky. Watch for falling stars, be amazed, visit other galaxies. It’s something the whole family will enjoy.
A MINI-GLOSSARY WITH WEBSTER’S HELP:
- Star – “any self-luminous, gaseous, spheroidal heavenly body, as the sun, seen (except for the sun) as a fixed point of light.”
- Planet – “any heavenly body that shines by reflected sunlight and revolves about the sun: the major planets, in their order from the sun, are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.”
- Asteroid/Planetoid – “minor planets which move in orbits between Mars and Jupiter.”
- Nebulae – “any of several vast, diffuse, cloudlike patches seen in the night sky, consisting of groups of stars too far away to be seen singly, or of masses of gaseous matter, or of external galaxies.”
- Galaxy – “any of innumerable large groupings of stars, typically containing millions to hundreds of billions of stars.”
- Sun – “the self-luminating, gaseous sphere about which the earth and other planets revolve and which furnishes light, heat, and energy for the solar system: it is the star nearest the earth, whose mean distance from it is nearly 93,000,000 miles.”
- Sunspot – “any of the temporarily cooler regions appearing cyclically as dark spots on the surface of the sun and associated with geomagnetic disturbances.”
- Satellite – “a small planet revolving around a larger one; moon.
- Constellation – “a number of fixed stars arbitrarily considered as a group, usually named after some object, animal, or mythological being that they supposedly suggest in outline.”