Guest blog: The Bucket List Astronomy Tour Class — Lowell Observatory

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Bucket List Astronomy Tour (BLAsT) Class continues for 10 Sam Houston State University students and their two professors, Dr. Scott Miller and Dr. C Renee James. And although the class gets to visit fantastic astronomical sites (and are hopefully inspired by what they see), they still have work to do. James and two students provide an update of their activities, including some time under the night sky at Lowell Observatory.

Adena Crider, Nicholas MacDonald, Kevin Mulcahy, and Ernesto DelBosque work diligently on determining stellar temperatures from their spectral features. Meanwhile, a rogue chicken has decided it wanted to learn more about the spectral types of stars. // All photos by C. Renee James
Thursday, May 24, was largely a lab and lecture day for the students as they prepared for an upcoming exam (it's not all about visiting cool astronomical sites and seeing amazing celestial events unfold). While working on determining stellar temperatures from their spectral features, a rogue chicken paid a visit to the class, deciding it wanted to learn more about the spectral types of stars, too. I have to say that I've never taught a class that was occasionally punctuated by a strange crowing sound, and although that particular experience wasn't on my bucket list, I can now proudly say I've done it. We're calling him Colonel Sanders, incidentally, and we were sad to leave him behind when we moved on. But at least now we know why the chicken crossed the road: To hang out with astronomy students.

The day before (May 23), though, was another fun day for the students as they visited Lowell Observatory in Arizona, famous as the place where Percival Lowell recorded “canals” on Mars but also the spot where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Laura Durham and Ernesto DelBosque provide their reflections of the tour.

Ernesto DelBosque peers through the eyepiece of the 24-inch refractor at Lowell Observatory as the rest of the class looks on.
Laura Durham’s reflections on Lowell Observatory
On Wednesday, we went to Lowell Observatory. The thing I liked about it the most was that Lowell is home to the telescope that discovered Pluto, which back then was known as Planet X. It was kind of surreal to know that I was standing in a place that held so much astronomical history. As part of the tour, we got to actually see the telescope that was used to discover Pluto, and our guide gave us a complete history of the discovery of Uranus, Neptune, and then Pluto, whose discovery turned out to be mostly accidental.

Another weird thing that I thought was cool was that Percival Lowell is buried right on the Lowell Observatory property next to one of the giant telescopes. It's kind of freaky to think about it, but cool at the same time.


Mallory Smith moves the 24-inch refractor that Vesto Slipher used to discover the large redshifts of many galaxies in 1912. The telescope was also used to search for the ideal landing spot for Apollo 11.
That night, we headed back to Lowell, where they had two small outdoor telescopes pointed at Saturn and Mars. After standing in the massive lines (lots of people showed up that night!), I saw both. Mars is one of my favorite planets, just because of the Greek and Roman history behind it. I was bummed that it didn't look like much through the telescope — just an orange dot. Saturn, on the other hand, was awesome. I could actually see the rings! It looked so small through the telescope, but man was it ever clear. It was so cool because it looked exactly like the pictures from textbooks.

Ernesto DelBosque’s reflections on Lowell Observatory
Once the crowd died down around the telescopes, we started requesting galaxies and clusters of stars. First, Dr. Miller requested the great globular cluster in Hercules, M13. Once the telescope was focused on M13, a dandelion-puff of stars was instantly visible. Even though there are 300,000 stars in the cluster, it looks like a tiny fuzzy ball because M13 is 25,000 light-years away. After that amazing cluster, we looked at the galaxies M81 and M82 in Ursa Major, each of which is about 12 million light-years away. I thought it was amazing that both are visible at the same time out of the same telescope's eyepiece.

After viewing these few sights, I finally realize how small we are in the massive size of our universe. I would love to do this again and look at more stars and galaxies — I have to say, this is one of the coolest things I've ever done.


Be a part of the Pluto controversy by voting with your dollars and keeping Lowell's awesome programs going.

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