By Mark Woolsey
It’s a small illustration of how astronomy and the beauty of celestial objects can fire young imaginations.
A 4-year-old girl and her grandparents came for a public viewing at the observatory on the Dunwoody campus of Georgia Perimeter College. The child drew a colorful diagram of the solar system and later returned to present it to David Penly, the physical sciences laboratory supervisor, who’s in charge of the facility and its bulky reflecting telescope. Penly hung the picture on the observatory’s wall.
“She has the solar system drawn and the planets in order, and if you look closely you can see she’s drawn the clouds in on Venus,” Penly said. “Some kids are crazy about astronomy, even at 4 years old.”
It’s that kind of enthusiasm about the night sky that Penly and other professors within the Georgia Perimeter system aim to inspire in college students taking astronomy lecture and laboratory science courses. Four such courses are offered at the Dunwoody campus, with about 100 students in Penly’s astronomy labs at any one time.
In addition to a steady stream of students studying, measuring and calculating, the public is also invited to see the wonders of space as the observatory holds an open house on the second Saturday night of each month, weather and mechanical fitness permitting.
As the students head for the small (15-foot-in-diameter) fiberglass dome on a fine, clear night for viewing, Penly waxes enthusiastic about the study of our solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and even nearby galaxies, some of which be seen up to 50 to 60 million light-years away through the telescope’s eyepiece.
Although Penly’s primary training is in physics (at Georgia State University), his interest in the depths of space is neither fleeting nor shallow.
“My interest in astronomy started when I was a little kid, hauling my telescope out into the yard. It fascinated my imagination to just let it drift across the stars, letting the telescope slew across and wondering what’s out there.”
Penly joined Georgia Perimeter to teach physics and run the physical science laboratory show in 2000, starting off with lugging much smaller telescopes out into a darkened area of campus.
“Then we started using bigger telescopes, and the bigger they were, the harder they were to set up,” he recalls. “So we started talking about building some kind of permanent facility.”
The university appropriated about $50,000 for the dome, telescopic gear and the pad it all sits on, and the facility opened in 2006, setting in on a field toward the rear of the campus complex.
Today, the observatory helps students in their physical science studies in a number of ways, Penly said. “They can come out and look at what’s available for the night,” he said. “Also for a more intensive project they can measure the spectrum of stars and the magnitude and from that, you can calculate the distance to the stars.”
In other class assignments, he says, students measure the diameter of planets such as Jupiter, track the motions of its moons, and measure the rotation rate of the sun.
Although software is readily available which also teaches the night sky and allows students to make calculations, Penly said, “we try to get the students to do something other than simulate a program. The advantage of looking through a telescope, even though it may not be as detailed or colorful as the pictures you see from Hubble, is that it’s in real-time and you have more immediacy that way and much more of an effect.”
Where: Campus of Georgia Perimeter College, 2101 Womack Road, Dunwoody, 30338
When it’s open to the public: Second Saturday of each month, starting 45 minutes to an hour after sunset, or by special arrangement
For more information: www.gpc.edu/~dunpslb/Telescope/Telescopestatus.htm
And quite an effect it has. A detailed view of the moon’s mountains and seas elicits a “wow” from one surprised visitor as the sky darkens toward blackness. Astronomy professor David Yenerall says the same is true of his lecture students.
“They love it,” he said. “Tonight we’re going to see Saturn. There’s something about it, the rings of Saturn, and you’re seeing them with your own eyes. He chuckles that “I’ve had people look at the telescope before to see if it’s painted on the end of it.”
On this Thursday night, he said, the students also will look at the Orion Nebula, Neptune and stars such as Spica and Arcturus.
But Penly cautions with the small size of the facility, it’s easy for them to get overrun. A crowd of say, 60, proves unwieldy. Twenty to 25 a night is much more manageable, although on some nights, as few as five might put in an appearance. It’s not heated or air conditioned, so the business of observing is a bundle-up proposition in the winter.