Text: R. Collins
When asked what he enjoys most about the age-old practice of astronomy, David DeBruyn, president of the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association says, “I’m tempted to say ‘all of it.’”
It’s an acceptable answer considering the depth of astronomy, which can be pastime and profession, passion and casual hobby. Though he admits it’s not the most accessible field of study, it offers so much to explore, and he does love making it accessible, specifically through the interactive Public Observing Nights offered at the James C. Veen Observatory from spring to mid-fall.
“I think I get most enjoyment out of seeing a-ha moments on the part of people when you’re explaining some astronomical concept,” DeBruyn said. “I enjoy sharing my enthusiasm about the universe with others. There’s a lot of satisfaction from that because…astronomy is not an accessible subject for everybody. I really enjoy making it accessible.”
Debruyn has had a lifelong interest in astronomy that earned him a master’s degree in the field; it then brought him to a role as director of the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium for more than half a century. He has simultaneously enjoyed connecting public to planets, in those special “a-ha” moments, and there are many that happen at the observatory, a wooded astronomical shelter out on Kissing Rock Road in Lowell, Michigan, which is used avidly by beginners, families, and seasoned scientists alike.
Debruyn also noted on a typical Public Observing Night the observatory will service up to 200 people, the majority of which are coming for the first time, and other nights, advanced astronomers can be found studying the night sky after midnight.
“We get people of all ages and backgrounds and a lot of the people who join are sort of first-time users. As a result, we try to have certain events along the way just for them,” DeBruyn said. “We’re doing everything from beginner’s astronomy to scientific research in that building out there in the woods, off Kissing Rock Road.”
Amateurs and advanced users often can be found together on Public Observing Nights with their own telescopes, exchanging information and advice. The observatory also offers a telescope clinic for beginners in January, assisting in everything from alignment to best-use practices.
October 17th and October 24th are the last of the Public Observing Nights for the season, and they’ll be positioned for a special astronomical occasion. The planet Mars is closer to Earth now than it will be until 2035, and the bright “Red Planet” appears highest in the eastern sky around midnight.
“We’re open three Saturday nights in a row and the featured attraction will be the planet Mars,” DeBruyn said.
Another phenomenon that is currently unfolding—and will reach its peak in December—is the “passing” of Jupiter in front of Saturn, the two biggest planets in our solar system. DeBruyn says that Jupiter can be seen south about an hour past sunset as the brightest object in the sky and just to the left, appearing as a fainter object, is Saturn with its distinctly golden hue. Eventually, the two big planets will be indistinguishable, their closest conjunction since 1623 and the rarest of the “bright planet” conjunctions.
Catch the last of the available Public Observing Nights this month—weather permitting—before paying a visit to the Chaffee Planetarium, which reopens October 10th, for one-of-a-kind looks at our universe. Those interested in participating can check the GRAA’s website for frequent updates on weather and all things Veen Observatory-oriented. Admission is $3.00 for adults and $2.00 for kids under 18, while public museum members are free.