The Darkish Side

Photo by Jeanne RiceAt the end of a gravel road, on a low, desolate stamp of land above UC Irvine, sits the campus observatory. That's right, Pluto: UCI has an observatory—with a telescope and everything—offering haven, albeit small, to those who wish to contemplate the heavens or monitor globules with nothing to impede their view save the light spewing from a few thousands homes, classrooms, churches, parking lots and several banks of high-powered stadium lights making the world safe for intramural softball. Science!

Built back in the mid-1990s, the observatory is a stout metal construction with requisite rotating dome, making it look like a good-size garden shed, or perhaps a small garage or a humungous snow globe. Inside is the computer that controls the 24-inch refractive telescope and receives images from space.

This evening the computer is manned by Yvonne Huynh, president of UCI's Astronomy Club, which comes up here every two weeks. The telescope is not working tonight—happens, usually software to blame—so the club has set up a couple of eight- and 10-inch telescopes on the grounds just outside the observatory. The main attraction is the Leonid meteor shower but, because it's early, members of the club, as well as friends and family, busy themselves with some basic star finding. Theresa Summer, who brought along her parents, Paul and Joan, directed me to take a look through the 10-inch at a double star called Albiero. My awe in my "Awwwww," upon seeing the blue and yellow stars as clearly as an engagement setting in a jeweler's case, seemed to more than please her.

"That's what I love about this," said Summer, who puts on planetarium presentations ( "The moment you just had. That moment when someone sees something that all of a sudden throws them out of this world and into space."

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The observatory is designed for such moments. Its director, Dr. Tammy Smecker-Hane, said its main purpose is to introduce undergrads to astronomy, as well as community outreach. (Sometimes the community reaches out itself, as when residents of nearby Turtle Rock complained that the observatory's bright white paint job was too jarring set against the dry hillside. It has since been repainted khaki.) The observatory enjoyed its most popular success last August, when an estimated 10,000 people trudged out here to observe Mars, some parking on the other side of the campus just for the thrill of standing for hours to get their peek.

"It was amazing," Smecker-Hane said. "The line went on forever and yet people waited politely, just really genuinely excited. It was like a rock concert. That's what the observatory was designed for. Even with the light, you can still make out Saturn's rings and the moons of Jupiter, even bright meteors. It's a wonderful thing to introduce people to astronomy, to get them excited about it."

So it was for Yvonne Huynh, who, growing up in Garden Grove, had never gazed through a telescope. "When I got here, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, so I gave it a try and I really liked it. I love coming up here, especially by myself. This is a great place to come when you're stressed out. Except for the random noises. That can be a bit spooky."

While the observatory was a terrific gateway for Huynh, it has proved less helpful for her senior thesis dealing with globules—a bunch of junk floating in space that emits light. More sophisticated and exacting research as that is harder, or impossible, to do at the UCI facility because local light pollution makes it harder to read the intensity of light in space.

"What really kills us is not the homes," Smecker-Hane said. "It's the lighted parking lots and the lighted tracks and baseball fields from the student recreation area." The fields are directly down from the observatory and the light cast up by their giant floods reaches well into the sky.

"They can use dark lights—those are lights that shine down but don't kick the light up—but they don't," Summer said.

Not that anyone is complaining much. UCI is far ahead of almost all local universities, and if further, more intense study is needed, there's always the giant scope at Mt. Palomar, in northern San Diego County. Still, as you'd expect from any group of people who keep their eyes cast above, they do dream.

"My dream is that we find someone willing to donate a lot of money or land so we can build another observatory somewhere in the Cleveland National Forest for more serious work, while keeping this one to do more public events," Smecker-Hane said. "If you know anyone with a lot of money who'd like their name on an observatory, let us know."

For now, the observatory remains a nice, khaki place for undergrads, friends, family and the public to have a look and a thrill. "We saw Mars," gushed Joan Summer to her daughter. "It looked like a red ball."

"Yeah," added Paul, "and on the ball I saw a little man waving his arms. And he was yelling, 'Turn down the lights on the ball field!'"

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