Want to become an astronomer?
The Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics is pleased to give you the opportunity through our series of scheduled public viewings. From the rooftop of the physics building, you will have the chance to observe some of the same celestial objects that have inspired sky-gazers throughout history.
The Institute schedules public viewing every Friday evening during the University's Fall and Spring semesters. There are also short presentations each week regardless of the weather, so we'll always have something for you. Observing will follow the presentation if the weather is acceptable (clear with wind chill above -15° F, see the FAQ below for additional details).
|Jan. 31 – May 2, 2014*||8:00 PM – ~9:30 PM**|
|*Public night will not be held March 14 & March 21 due to Spring Break|
**Observing may end early in the event of low attendance or unfavorable sky conditions
Each week begins with a short (~20 min.) presentation with time for questions. If the skies are clear, then telescope observing will follow in the dome and possibly also outside on the roof in case of high attendance. Each week has a different topic, so please feel free to visit us several times! If the skies are not clear, the presenters can take any additional questions either about the weekly topic or astronomy in general.
A list of the topics for each week can be found here.
Public viewing is held on the roof of the Tate Laboratory of Physics. Once in the building, take the south elevator to floor 4S. Go down the hallway to room 450 to access the roof. The presentations will occur in room 450 before we move into the dome and onto the roof. If you need help locating our building or finding a good parking spot, try consulting our page on finding the department. Most nearby parking around campus is paid (garages, ramps, and meters).
Often, girl scout troops and various other groups enjoy attending our public viewing nights. If you would like to bring a large group (more than 15) to public viewing or if you wish to request a separate presentation for your group, contact our Public Outreach Coordinator at least one week prior to the desired observing session.
The Tate Lab of Physics is one of the oldest buildings on campus, and results in a mixed level of wheelchair accessibility for our events. A ramp to enter the building is located on the south side of the building, and the south elevator to floor 4S provides access to the presentation room: attending the talk portion of the event should provide few problems.
Unfortunately, access to the telescopes themselves—whether in the dome or on the roof—requires taking small sets of stairs to reach them. There are roughly 10 steps to enter the telescope dome and 5 to go outside on the roof. In addition, the roof surface is a rough gravel until you reach the wooden observing deckwhich has a narrow ramp with hand rails. In the dome, a rolling ladder is often necessary to reach the eyepiece for viewing.
- When do you have public viewing?
--Typically, every Friday evening during the Fall and Spring semesters except for official University holidays, although you should view our schedule to confirm. Also, please note that we do sponsor a public viewing program over the summer called Universe in the Park.
- When does the observing (not the presentation) start?
--Observing begins whenever the presentation ends, weather permitting. The presentations take roughly 20 minutes, but can be slightly shorter or longer depending on the topic. Pending favorable sky conditions, observing should therefore begin by about 8:30pm.
- Is the starting time affected by Daylight Savings Time?
--No, the viewings begin at 8:00pm regardless of the time of year or if Daylight Savings is in effect. Because we do not hold viewings in the middle of summer when the days are at their longest, the Sun always sets sufficiently enough for the observing portion of the event to begin at 8:30pm year-round.
- Can I come after the 8:00pm starting time?
--Absolutely, but with a caveat. Historically, most people have shown up at the start. If the sky conditions are unfavorable or everyone in attendance has gotten tired and left for the night, the presenters may close up early as there is no precedent to expect late arrivals. If you anticipate being late and want to ask if the presenters can wait for you, you can try emailing the webmaster at who will forward it to the appropriate people or by calling 612-626-0034 in the hour before the event begins (7–8pm). If no one answers, please be patient and try again. Voicemails are unlikely to be returned in a timely manner.
- How can I find out if viewing through the telescopes will happen?
(Is the weather good enough for viewing?)
--The weather conditions and forecast are assessed throughout the day by that week's presenters, but the final decision on if the telescopes will be open or not is made immediately following the conclusion of the weekly presentation.
Due to the somewhat unpredictable nature of the weather, there is no hard answer to this question. Since the final decision is being made while our presenters are already busy preparing the room and equipment or hosting guests, much of the time they are unable to answer the phone, which is in the next room. You may try calling 612-626-0034 in the hour before the event (7–8pm) to ask the presenter's opinion, but again, keep in mind they may not be able to pick up for various reasons. If no one answers, please be patient and try again. Voicemails are unlikely to be returned in a timely manner. Their opinion is also just that: an opinion which provides no guarantee of how the weather will behave over the next few hours.
You are also free to make your own assessment of the weather using any resource available to you, be it the local news, a weather website such as the National Weather Service, weather.com, AccuWeather, or anywhere else with weather information (our zip code is 55455). The Clear Sky Chart is also a useful tool used by our presenters and by astronomers worldwide. Some general guidelines are:
- If it is completely clear, observing will most likely happen.
- If there is precipitation or the skies are overcast, observing will not occur.
- If it is mostly clear, with only a few clouds (<50% cover), observing will likely occur with some short interruptions
- If it is mostly cloudy (>50% cover), individual stars may still be visible through gaps in the clouds, but it is impractical to observe in such conditions, and observing may not occur.
As a result of all of the above, we cannot guarantee that observing will be possible on any given night and it is left to your own judgement whether or not you wish to travel to campus and incur any related costs such as parking and gas (the events themselves are free). If you have come to the event and the presenter determines that the telescopes will not be open, please respect their decision as they have made it with consideration for the safety of both our guests and the equipment, and many of the factors that go into the decision are beyond their control.
- Why are even partly cloudy skies disruptive to observing?
--Many guests are disheartened when we do not observe even though a few stars can be gleaned through the gaps in the clouds. Although these stars are visible, several factors contribute to why this is considered poor observing conditions:
1. Depedning on the type of the clouds, a threat of possible rain means the domes must stay closed. While important, this situation isn't usually the case.
2. The few stars that are visible are most likely very plain stars that are not enhanced in any meaningful way when viewed through a telescope: they would still be simple points of light that look no different than what your eye sees, except for being brighter.
3. Trying to find a more interesting object is hard without the other stars as reference points. It's like trying to drive from city A to city B when you only know the general location of B without a map, and the map you do have had ink spilled on it covering 90% of the roads to get there.
4. Even if we could find a more interesting object, the moving clouds cover the area quickly despite it being clear a minute ago. It is for this reason such gaps are often called "suckerholes", because you're a sucker if you think you can beat the clouds. The very small and impractical viewing windows can quickly become stressful both for presenters and for the guests when one person wants to hog the eyepiece for the chance to get a better look that never comes.
These are the main reasons we don't observe in some partly cloudy skies. We understand the disappointment of our guests when observing doesn't happen: we're disappointed too, especially when the weather is teasing us like this. But we hope you understand why we make our decision to cancel observing in these conditions, and that you're able to join us again when we have better luck with the weather.
- What kinds of objects will be visible?
--Depending on the time of year and weather conditions, our presenters usually look for the Moon and planets (if they are up), bright stars, binary stars, star clusters, and the occasional nebula or galaxy (the light pollution from the metro area limits us to only the brightest ones). On a clear night, you can actually see a great variety of interesting objects. The Minnesota Starwatch newsletter, updated monthly, describes the objects that should be visible in clear skies.
- What sort of equipment will be used?
--Our main attraction is the historical 10.5" refracting telescope housed inside the prominent green dome on the roof of the building. Depending on the number of visitors, we can supplement the primary telescope with one or two 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain reflecting telescopes outside on the roof. Many of the objects we observe can also be seen quite well in modest binoculars (7X50 or 10X50 binoculars offer a good balance between power and weight for casual observing without a tripod), though we don't have any to use during the events.
- Can I bring small children to the viewings?
--Of course, and we encourage it! However, we must respectfully ask that you be able to exercise full control over them for their own safety and that of our guests. Once observing begins, the telescope dome and roof can be quite dark and crowded with people and equipment around the floor creating tripping hazards. Be cautious and respectful. We have stools available to provide a height boost for our shorter guests.