Stargazing with strangers: Peyton Observatory offers guided viewings


Each month, Princeton's Peyton Observatory offers guided, monthly viewings open to the public. From left to right, graduate students Chelsea Huang, Elisa Chisari and Munan Gong, all of whom are pursuing dissertations in astrophysical sciences and often serve as guides, stand in front of the Meade 12-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope during a recent session.

Photos by Matilda Luk, Office of Communications

Stargazing with strangers: Peyton Observatory offers guided viewings

On a clear summer night, more than two dozen strangers, including at least half a dozen kids under 10, crowded into a small, dark room on the second floor of Peyton Hall for their turn to glimpse distant planets, neighboring galaxies and other celestial bodies.

The Peyton Observatory on Princeton University's campus opens its doors monthly for informal viewings of the night sky. On this particular night, Chelsea Huang, a fourth-year graduate student in astrophysical sciences, entered the coordinates for Mars into the Meade 12-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. The telescope turned and the opening of the dome ceiling above shifted.

For the next few hours, Huang and fellow graduate students Munan Gong and Elisa Chisari were enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides to objects such as the planet Saturn, the Ring Nebula, and Albireo, a double star about 430 light years from Earth.


Summer is the ideal season for viewing Albireo (left), a double star. The rings of Saturn can be seen clearly through the telescope (right). (Images courtesy of the Peyton Observatory)

While Huang prepared the telescope, Gong, a second-year student, helped explain why Albireo A glowed amber. "The colors are an expression of a star's temperature," she said.

Meanwhile, fifth-year student Chisari took some participants to see Peyton Hall's unique carpet depicting the relative distance from Earth of known celestial objects and limits, such as the International Space Station and the limit to which radio waves have been broadcast. "If you're an alien on Pluto, you may have watched an episode of 'I Love Lucy,'" added Chisari.

The end of the carpet is an image produced by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), showing the temperature of cosmic light before the first stars were formed and giving a glimpse of the universe at its very beginnings. Princeton scientists partnered with NASA on building the WMAP satellite.


A group listens as Chisari gives a tour of the Peyton Hall carpet of known celestial bodies, culminating in an image of the universe at its very beginnings. The last image was produced by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a project built by Princeton and NASA scientists that uncovered the temperature of cosmic light before the first stars were formed.

This year, summer is the best time to see Mars and Saturn, spring is prime time for the starburst galaxy M82 (also known as the Cigar Galaxy), and winter is ideal for viewing Jupiter and the constellation Orion.

The viewings — coordinated by James Gunn, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Astronomy, Emeritus — are free and open to the public, but are subject to weather and the availability of student, faculty or postdoctoral guides. For more information about public viewings or other observatory events, visit the observatory website.


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