Today marks the official opening of the National Air and Space Museum's public observatory, but the staff prepped themselves with a soft opening last week. Curious visitors as well as museum staff trickled in through the observatory's door.
"We're hoping to get people who aren't interested in astronomy, but they come and run into a telescope," said Katie Moore, the museum's Astronomy Educator. "And we can introduce them to astronomy."
The cloud-filled sky made spotting Venus—this month's visible planet—near impossible. During a brief sunny spell, Moore had me peer through the scope. I saw a bright spot near the bottom right, and she assured me this was Venus. Mere seconds later, cloud cover returned, and the spot disappeared.
But the observatory staff, decked out in black aprons reading "Public Observatory Project," was prepared. Museum volunteer Erin Braswell handed visitor Joe Villa a small styrofoam ball stuck onto a wooden stick. She grabbed one herself and began to explain the phases of Venus. By imitating the orbit of Venus (the styrofoam ball) around the Sun (the lamp), visitors can see how the phases are created. When the ball moves around the lamp, only certain areas are lit up. From the Earth, we only see those parts. "I never knew that," he said after the demonstration.
These "Discovery Stations" as well as photographs of planets, stars and the moon through the telescope safeguard against the fickle weather. "You're completely subject to the weather," said curator David DeVorkin. If the weather cooperates, the new observatory will be open six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday, for fours hours each day.
"The initial goal was to make astronomy available for people who aren't looking for it," Devorkin said. In fact, the observatory's location almost ensures passersby will take notice; the domed top is visible through the trees on Independence Ave.
While it might seem odd that an observatory is open during the daytime hours, that's part of the plan, DeVorkin said. "The whole idea here is to make people aware of the fact that celestial objects don't disappear during the day."
The observatory was built with the cooperation of Harvard and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The story behind the telescope itself is interesting, DeVorkin said. It's the Cook Memorial Telescope, name for astronomer Chester Cook, and is on a long-term loan from Harvard. DeVorkin eventually plans to increase programming at the observatory, even envisioning a program that allows local high school students to conduct research. For now, however, the observatory welcomes all inquisitive visitors wanting to dabble in astronomy.