With Binary Stars in their Eyes
New Telescopes Bring New Perspectives
“Awesome!”—As overused as that word is, it seemed wholly appropriate as senior Christy Kirk got her first up-close look at Alberio, a binary star system of one bluish and one red-tinted star that orbit a common center of gravity.
The distances bridged by UNC Asheville’s new telescopes are indeed vast—380 light years in the case of Alberio—but the views produced are large, sharp and clear, summoning the awe and wonder that have characterized astronomy since ancient times.
Ten new 8-inch Newtonian reflecting telescopes have made their debut on the Quad this semester as part of Astronomy 105 labs, bringing students a chance to see stars the old-fashioned way, rather than just on computer monitors. “We’re now able to tie the information about the properties of those stars to personal experience,” said Glaxo-Wellcome Professor of Physics Brian Dennison, who redesigned the astronomy curriculum to make use of the telescopes. “Students are excited by it. Sometimes, they bring their friends to share what they’re seeing.”
Although he’s best known for his work with radio telescopes, Dennison’s passion for stargazing comes across as he leads the class: “I’m an astronomer, and the core activity of astronomy is observing the sky. So if you teach astronomy, the essence of that is to get students out here at night.”
Each Monday through Thursday night this fall, when skies are clear, class is held on the Quad with roughly 160 students in eight sections, some taught by Dennison and some by Luba Nichols, lecturer in Physics. Working in pairs, the students quickly assemble the telescope bases and tubes. Within 10 minutes, an expert-guided tour of the heavens has begun, with crystal clear views.
Most of the students, like art major Christy Kirk, are not preparing for careers in science, but the course still has an impact. “To see the stars closer and to see the shadows and contrasts on the moon—as an artist, that is pretty spectacular,” said Kirk. “I have painted the moon and stars before, but I now have a different perspective on it.”
“As we learn more through astronomy and physics, our perspective of the universe also changes,” agrees sophomore Michael Raymond, who comes to lab with a red headlamp to help maintain his night vision. He handles the equipment with a confidence gained from his time in the Army National Guard. A double major in philosophy and Spanish, Raymond is taking astronomy as part of a topical cluster of courses, Belief Systems in Our Universe. He says, “Physics and astronomy have given me a deeper understanding with which I can explore the philosophical questions of our time.”
...the core activity of astronomy is observing the sky.
So if you teach astronomy, the essence of that is to get students out here at night.”
—Professor of Physics Brian Dennison
Both Dennison and Physics Department Chair Charles Bennett are delighted that the university purchased the new telescopes. At roughly $1,000 apiece, they are comparable in cost to computers, but will likely still be in use long after today’s laptops are obsolete. Dennison and Bennett are confident that the experience of observing the sky at night will help produce new physics majors, and will prove valuable and inspirational for students regardless of field of study.
There is, of course, more than meets the eye. While the two stars of Alberio appear close together in the new telescopes, they are actually so far apart that their orbital period is probably greater than 100,000 years. And one star of the pair is itself a paired star, so Alberio is really a triple star system. But this can only be seen with much more powerful telescopes, so students complement their observations with readings, lectures and Internet sources.
“Students can view the Hubble Space Telescope images,” said Bennett, “but to actually point the scope and see that system with their own scope and their own eyes, it’s very special. It brings an intuitive connection with what’s out there that I don’t think you get another way.”
For Christy Kirk, the awesome sight of Alberio came with an unexpected bonus when a shooting star sped through the field of view. This time she had no words, only a gasp, and a desire to see more celestial wonders.