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4062701932_59b0acdc52_m The University of Chicago has, once again after 13 years, decided to close famed Yerkes Observatory, the birthplace of American astrophysics and still home to the world’s largest operating lens type telescope. The University’s last effort to shut down Yerkes began in 2005, when the college announced they planned to sell Yerkes to Mirbeau, an eastern resort company, for $10 million, to build a spa/resort on the lakefront Yerkes property and homes around the observatory main complex. The fate of the observatory structure and its contents were left up in the air.

The Lake Geneva community rose up in arms at the prospective desecration of this beloved historical cradle of American astronomy, that included the last 550 feet of undeveloped shoreland on the 26-mile circumference, spring-fed Lake Geneva, as well as nine acres of adjacent heavily wooded, steep land that had remained untouched for 120 years, since the university acquired it.

The uproar from the lakes community, university alumni, the news media and astronomy fans across the globe was so strong that by 2007 UC withdrew from their contract with Mirbeau, and agreed to continue to operate and invest in Yerkes as an astro-science education facility. Then just a few weeks ago,  the university issued a news release saying that it plans to permanently close the doors at Yerkes on October 1, 2018. Their subsequent plans for the observatory and its full 77-acre site are yet unknown. They have indicated they are open to proposals, though no potential terms have yet been announced. The local community is gathering forces and planning what steps to take in response to the university’s decision to shut down this legendary stairway to the stars.

Yerkes Observatory opened the world’s eyes to the wonders of the universe, and the long lenses that still playing across the night skies serve to open the minds of young people everywhere to new possibilities. Hopefully, the great university and the community that has been home to Yerkes for 120 years will use that long perspective to open the way to an even bright future for what is next for Yerkes.

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ALL THERE IS

Saturday night saw us climb the historic steps of Yerkes Observatory at Williams Bay, Wisconsin, for an evening of showering meteors, music wafting up from the lake shore, and fireworks over the Bay. Yerkes is the world’s first astrophysical laboratory, and home to the world’s largest conventional telescope. Visiting friends from Chicago prompted us to join Yerkes chief tour guide Richard Dreiser for a late night reverie under the annual Perseid meteor shower.

We began the evening in the darkness outside the observatory, straining our naked eyes and using binoculars to spot the first few meteors racing across the sky. We spotted several man-made satellites too, including the space station, making their slow un-twinkling progress, unlike the high airplanes with their strobing. Gradually we spotted various stars, and then the foamy Milky Way began to appear. Meanwhile soft strains of music drifted up to us from the waterside pavilion that is home to the Music By The Lake summer series at George Williams College.

Then, we walked the long corridor and up a three-story circular staircase to the dome of the 24-inch reflector. As the dome motor cranked away, and the giant curving blades parted, slight flashes reflected the fireworks show beginning a mile away at the Bay, where hundreds of pleasure boats gathered to watch. We then each had a chance to view Saturn and its rings, and M57, the spectacular summer centerpiece of the northern hemisphere night skies, pictured here. It was a magical evening under the stars.

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Fresh from the director of Yerkes Observatory at Williams Bay, Wisconsin…

DECEMBER ASTRONOMICAL EVENTS
…….you can watch without a telescope.

First, the Geminid meteor shower will peak on Monday night and Tuesday morning December 13-14, though there should be a reasonable number of meteors visible for a few nights before and after that. Meteors, often called shooting stars, are seen as streaks of light moving rapidly across the sky. They are actually small particles burning up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Earth encounters streams of these particles at specific times each year, resulting in predictable meteor showers. The August Perseid meteor shower is probably best known, but the December Geminids are often equally good (though December weather is more often cloudy and temperatures are less pleasant for spending night hours outdoors). To watch these meteors, dress very warmly, find a reasonably dark location, and look up. You should see at least several meteors in a half hour of watching, depending on how clear and dark the sky is. Geminids will appear to streak away from the constellation of Gemini, north of the well-known figure of Orion, but can be seen in any part of the sky, so watch the darkest part of your sky. Gemini will have risen in the eastern sky by 8 pm, though the best meteor viewing will be when it is much higher around and after midnight. The Moon will brighten the western sky somewhat during the first half of the night on Dec. 13-14.

The second event is a total eclipse of the Moon on Monday night and Tuesday morning December 20-21. Lunar eclipses occur when the Moon passes through Earth’s shadow. The partial phase of this eclipse will begin at 12:33 am, though there should be some shadowing visible for perhaps half an hour before that. The Moon will be totally eclipsed from 1:41 to 2:17 am, with another partial phase following totality. The Moon will move from very high in the southeast to moderately high in the west during these hours. During totality the Moon is sometimes so dim as to be almost invisible, but more often is easily visible with a reddish color. Unlike a meteor shower, where one should plan to spend quite awhile outdoors in a reasonably dark location, a lunar eclipse can be viewed by simply going outdoors a few minutes at a time anywhere, and even with a partly cloudy sky. The next total lunar eclipse visible from here will occur in mid-April 2014, an unusually long gap between such eclipses, so try to catch this one if weather permits.

Looking east from village of Fontana. Como lake to the north. City of Lake Geneva around bend to left at top. Williams Bay midway on north. Yerkes Observatory just west of Williams Bay.

Williams Bay, above shore of Geneva Lake, WI

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