Seeing stars in the Madison area

It’s time to stop looking down at your phone and look up at the stars.
little girl standing in the middle of a field and looking at stars in a field at Donald County Park
Photo by Amandalynn Jones
Donald County Park

It’s time to stop looking down at your phone and look up at the stars. Join in on something that welcomes everyone from amateurs to aficionados, and requires little more than clear skies and a curiosity for what’s out there. Gaze upon the craters of the moon, the cloud bands of Jupiter, the connective bridges of galaxies, the luminescent fog of nebulae, globular star clusters, exploding comets and all the stardust in between.

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It’s just after 9 p.m. on July 1 when Jim Lattis climbs the stairs of the Washburn Observatory to the Clark refractor telescope inside the building’s dome. The instrument has remained relatively dormant through COVID-19, but on this night Lattis needs to test it out ahead of a training season he’s holding for his graduate students in a few weeks. The hope is that those students will host public nights again in the coming months. This telescope was the third largest of its kind in the U.S. when it was installed in January 1879, and it was slightly larger than Harvard’s, suggesting that the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s scientific resources were equal or superior to that of one of the most prestigious colleges in the country. The study of astronomical science became a nationwide movement between the 1850s and 1880s, and having an observatory was a symbol of prestige and signaled higher aspirations for educational institutions.

Lattis, the director of the UW Space Place and a faculty associate in the UW–Madison Department of Astronomy, knows better than maybe any other person the long history of groundbreaking astronomical discoveries and advancements that have taken place in this building, which was constructed around a pier that holds up a 19th century telescope. The historian of astronomy — who has built his own telescopes, earned a master’s degree in astrophysics and authored a book on astronomy in the age of Galileo — is working on two new books that document the history of the development of astronomical science at the university. The Washburn Observatory no longer has a director — if it did, it would be Lattis. But he’d say he’s more of a custodian — the keeper of the keys.

“This is pretty much like it was in 1881,” he says about the dome as he goes through the steps of setting up the telescope for his test run. The circular room is all but empty, allowing for a large wooden observing scaffold to be wheeled around 360 degrees, depending on where you need to look through the eyepiece. Lattis guesses that the scaffolding is original, minus an observer’s chair that used to run up and down the stairs on tracks for hours-long observations. He even speculates the weathered stool off to the side could have been used by Joel Stebbins, the fourth director of the Washburn Observatory (1922-1948) and a man responsible for making the university an important player in the development of modern astrophysics.

Lattis opens the dome, which slowly creaks and clicks as it retracts to reveal a quickly fading gradient blue sky. A breeze rolls through the dome’s slot as Lattis turns on the telescope’s clock drive. With the pull of a knob, the clock will allow the telescope to move at the same rate the earth is turning so it will track whatever it’s pointed at. He turns off the white lights and flips a switch that bathes the observing dome in a dim red glow, which allows our eyes to more easily adapt to the darkness.

To orient himself, Lattis heads out on the balcony and peers up at the sky. The clouds have cooperated since sunset. “When it gets a little darker, I can find a double star that’s right next to the star Vega,” Lattis says. “That will be a good test of the telescope.”

Star Feature2

Jim Lattis knows quite a bit about the telescope he’s operating below at the Washburn Observatory, down to the fact that the ship-style steering wheel was an extra touch added by former observatory director Joel Stebbins, who collaborated with the engineering school to create the quirky mounting in the late 1920s. Photo by Darren Hauck

He adjusts his eyepiece to make out two faint stars near Vega in the constellation Lyra. Another small twist of the focusing knob turns the stars into elongated masses, before they come into full focus to reveal two separate stars. “That’s actually two together,” he notes. “It’s a four-star system. Each of those is a binary pair.”

This observation reminds him of astronomy’s old days, when astronomers made measurements of spacing between stars and their positioning over and over again so they could figure out their orbits, then their masses, then their densities. “George Comstock, who retired in 1922, spent decades making double star measurements of hundreds of binary stars,” Lattis says.

Back then, this telescope was used for painstaking observation that helped professional astronomers understand the universe scientifically. But it also has long been a tool to share a look at the cosmos with the general population. “We’ve been opening up the observatory to the public since 1881,” he says.

As the time approaches 10:30 p.m., Lattis decides that optically, everything looks great and the telescope is functioning properly. It’s ready for his graduate students, who will be taught how to assist guests in the observatory on public observation nights.

It’s especially rewarding for Lattis to share and document the historical significance of the study of stars — a legacy today’s casual observers may not be familiar with. Astronomy was one of the first scientific fields that helped UW–Madison establish itself during its early days as one of the world’s leading research universities. He loves sharing that history with the public.

“Wisconsin astronomy, like other institutions as well, has contributed to this greater enterprise,” he says, “this human enterprise of wanting to understand the universe.”

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Read more about stargazing in Madison at the links below.

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A Deep Dive Into Space
The Madison area’s amateur astronomers and astrophotographers celebrate and capture the beauty of what can be found in the night sky.

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Your 2021 Astro Calendar
Here are a few celestial events to take note of for the rest of the year. Download the PDF and print it out to keep track of the events.

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Seek Out Dark Skies
Light pollution is a hindrance to stargazing in Madison, but here are a few spots in the area where you can set up camp for a night of observing.

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Get Out There
Here are nine opportunities to connect in person with like-minded star fanatics in the Madison area. Along with four basic tips for a stargazing outing.

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Star Sites & Apps
Look up clubs in your area. go-astronomy.com
Find a helpful landing page of Wisconsin-specific stargazing resources. wisconsinastronomy.org
Gather all the info you’ll need to take breathtaking star photos. photopills.com
Take a look at a light pollution map of the U.S. darksitefinder.com
Check weather conditions before you head out. spaceweather.com
Explore an interactive night sky map. stellarium.org
Stay abreast of space news. hubblesite.org and nasa.gov/launchschedule
Report a UFO. nuforc.org

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