Monday, December 28, 2015

In The Observatory

The Abbitt Observatory

I spent Saturday morning at the Virginia Living Museum (VLM), where I volunteer on weekends when not actually away at sea.  On these rare but happy occasions I man the dome of the Abbitt Observatory, trying in my way to present the wonders and amazements of the sky to guests of the Museum. I answer questions and do my best to instill in them the same feelings of awe and delight that I feel when I contemplate the heavens.
Really, this is my other job, perhaps even the one where I feel most comfortable and productive.  Beneath the curving roof of the observatory dome I am privileged to be able to communicate with people from both the local area and afar; I can let my enthusiasm and love of astronomy have free rein as I show guests (safely, through filtered telescopes) the roiling photosphere of the sun by day, the rugged surface of our Moon or delicate jewelry of Saturn's rings and satellites by night at the Museum's monthly public Star Parties.

The 16-Inch Meade Telescope

I've been volunteering in the VLM's dome since 2004 but my relationship with the Museum goes back much farther.  I can remember visiting the Peninsula Nature  and Science Center as a young boy in the 1960s; many times walking along the railroad tracks that lead from behind my family's old white-brick house in Hidenwood to the dark, wet culvert under those tracks leading to what to a young man seemed a wonderland of mysteries and discovery. 
The original Museum building, now the Education Center 
The facility was much smaller then; a single building which contained planetarium, observatory, aquarium and gift shop (plus, I suppose, the offices and other infrastructure that supported them--though as a boy I hardly noticed such essentials!). That building still stands today behind the massive edifice that the VLM has grown into over the decades; the lesser structure still supports the planetarium and classrooms under the aegis of the Education Department.

The new building, commissioned in the early 2000s, has allowed the Museum to expand its scope and horizons, though I'm happy to say that growth hasn't gone to the VLM's metaphorical head; our mission remains one of education and outreach.  From the tremendous aquaria representing both coastal and inland environments to the aviary, coastal touch-tank to alligators basking in their shallow ponds, red wolves to otters to sea-turtles, the Museum continues to showcase Virginia's tremendous biological diversity and natural beauty to hundreds of guests a day.
The current Virginia Living Museum
And I'm pretty well thrilled to be a small part of this experience.

But back to Saturday in the Observatory...

The sky was completely overcast--which can make it difficult to use telescopes effectively--so I prepared some "static" displays of the dome's equipment, a demonstration of the Earth-Moon system and computer presentations of current solar activity.  I wasn't expecting a large number of guests as it was the day after Christmas, and so relaxed in the cool, moist morning air as cold "steam" rose from the metal roof of the Museum, enjoying the solitude of the moment.

A "Vee" of geese passed overhead; even as their honking faded into the southern overcast I could hear the sounds of voices from the elevator leading to the Observatory deck.  I straightened my hat and made one last check of the dome's interior; first impressions are so important.  The door opened and a young family--father, mother, and two girls--emerged blinking into the watery light of day; I stepped forward to greet and welcome them to my Universe and to invite them to consider it theirs as well.
After all, it's big enough for all of us to share, isn't it?
What it's all about!

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