People come to the William M. Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College to see the wonders of the universe.
The images you see on the dome and in the lobby of the planetarium are not possible to view if you are merely staring up at the night sky, because these objects are too dim to see without using a telescope.
Telescopes have been essential to understanding the universe because their lenses or mirrors collect far more light than your pupils.
Magnifying an image to the sizes you see on posters or in videos would not be possible without making them appear brighter first.
Soon after telescopes were invented in the Netherlands in the early 1600s, astronomers like Galileo pointed the optical device toward the sky. Seeing the phases of Venus and discovering the moons orbiting Jupiter convinced Galileo that Earth was not at the center of the cosmos.
As technology has improved, telescopes have dramatically grown in size, collecting thousands of times more light than Galileo’s 17th-century model.
Photographic advancements allow long-term exposures to surpass real-time views and to provide an objective view for all observers.
Through the use of filters, telescopes can focus on light at specific wavelengths across the electromagnetic spectrum.
Gamma rays indicate the presence of active black holes at the centers of galaxies. Radio waves show signs of the aftereffects of the Big Bang. Infrared radiation lets us see the stars and planets that are still forming inside dense clouds of gas and dust.
Technology advances have also made it easier for anyone to own and use telescopes. Dobsonian telescopes are very popular with amateur astronomers because these reflectors have a simple design and large mirrors which allow you to see planets and deep sky objects from your backyard.
The Staerkel Planetarium offers Dobsonians to rent if you’d like to practice using one.
Since eyepieces would be shared, caution is necessary to prevent COVID-19 transmission. Fortunately, the protective coating on eyepieces won’t be damaged by alcohol wipes.
Please research your options before purchasing a telescope. Remember that binoculars are just two refracting telescopes mounted together, so they are your most compact option, and you may already have a pair!
Practice using a telescope by looking at distant trees or the moon to test your focusing and alignment. Local astronomy clubs are a good resource to learn from, and they may have members selling used telescopes as well.
This fall, the Staerkel Planetarium will be offering virtual shows to the public and to school groups. Go to parkland.edu/planetarium or email email@example.com to find more information about telescope rentals, our schedule for Prairie Skies and the speakers for the James Kaler Science Lecture Series. Learn more about the Champaign County Museums Network at champaigncountymuseums.org.
Erik Johnson is the director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.