The Coming Of ISON And The MicroObservatory
November 20, 2013

The Coming Of ISON And The MicroObservatory

Growing up in the middle of an expansive stretch of farmland in central Illinois, I was blessed with clear night skies. Skies perfect for watching shooting stars and meteor showers. I remember several occasions when I was little that I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime, sometimes even on school nights, because there were reports of these incredible cosmic phenomenon. Sitting outside, stretched out on the grass, gazing upward with excitement and wonder brimming within me are some of those memories that will last forever. It’s been a long time since I last allowed myself such a luxury. Life tends to just get in the way, it feels like. Fortunately, I will soon be given another chance to partake in this particular pleasure, as ISON will soon make its way near enough to our planet to allow us a glimpse at its passing.

Speeding through our solar system at about 120,000 miles per hour, the comet ISON is said to be one of the most extraordinary comets seen in recent years. It will pass near to our sun on November 28th, and assuming it survives the encounter, it should become visible to our naked eyes soon after. Currently visible to anyone with a telescope or good pair of binoculars, it can be seen in the Virgo constellation. Having just recently brightened to the point of being easily observable, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has just recently released images of ISON that were captured on Saturday, November 9th by a retired teacher using “Donald,” a MicroObservatory telescope in Arizona.

The MicroObservatory is an incredible network of automated telescopes that can be controlled via the Internet. Developed by Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researchers and scientists, they were designed to allow students and teachers across the nation the freedom to peer into the wonders of the sky from their classrooms. Users are able to control the MircoObservatory telescopes and download the images they capture with them. They are designed to lack any human intervention between the observer and the sky, giving even first-time users complete freedom in their observations. Users choose their target and then select various options such as exposure time, color filters, and various other parameters. Then they submit their email address along with the request for the telescope to take its shots. A day or two later, they receive email notification that their shots are ready, and are given a link to access and download their images. It is all very incredible, and provides for a wonderful learning experience for students. Currently there are five telescopes that make up the MicroObservatory network, all named after famous astronomers of history. There is Annie Jump Cannon, Benjamin Banneker, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Donald Menzel, and Edward Pickering.

This is the sort of thing that can make learning come alive for students. It makes me wish that my own grade school and high school teachers had these sorts of things available to them. Inspiring young minds, letting them have their own hands on experience with learning, that is the best way to teach.

As for me, I will be watching the sky for ISON.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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