October 17, 2006 > Reaching for the stars
Reaching for the stars
by Steve Warga
After reading TCV's August 8 story about Internet hoaxes ("You're kidding, right?"), reader Gerald McKeegan thanked us for exposing the one about Mars drawing so close to Earth that it would appear large as our moon later that month. This one particularly annoyed McKeegan because he is an amateur astronomer and a docent at the Chabot Space & Science Center in the Oakland hills. He related how the Center has been swamped with inquiries every August since the hoax was sprung three years ago.
When we learned he was a docent at the Center, TCV asked McKeegan for a tour and he gladly obliged. A short drive almost straight uphill from Highway 13 brought us to a gleaming complex tucked into a nest of native evergreens with a breathtaking view of the Oakland Estuary basin, San Francisco Bay and the coastal hills beyond. With multiple observatories and display rooms, several laboratories, and one of the nation's largest planetariums, there is plenty to see and do at this fine facility. For about three hours, McKeegan enthusiastically shared his lifelong fascination with the stars while discussing and demonstrating a wide array of educational and entertaining features of what seems to be his second home.
As darkness falls, a compelling daytime vista turns into a black backdrop, blanketed by millions of individual lights glittering far below. These man-made wonders - tiny coppery sparklers - draw a visitor's attention as if in competition with heavenly offers above. In fact, this silent competition of lights eventually forced two relocations of the facility.
The 1883 version of downtown Oakland had no street lights, neon signs, towering office buildings, or even many houses nearby whose lights would dim the heaven's distant illumination. So, when Anthony Chabot funded a modest observatory for local high school studies, a downtown location worked just fine. But with growth and progress came lights, lights and more lights, growing denser every year.
In a real world variation of the child's game, "Leap Frog," the Oakland school district observatory was slowly jumped by the ambient brightness of first thousands, and then millions of man-made illuminations demanded by an ever-expanding populace. A telescope trying to gather dim rays from incredibly distant stars loses its performance to closer light sources. So, the observatory and its original telescope, Leah, moved; first to a low hill about five miles from City Hall. It was here that a second, much larger telescope was installed. It's known as, Rachel. In the early '60's four Oakland Rotary Clubs raised the funds to build a planetarium.
About 10 years later, the school board began seriously consider moving again. It would take nearly three more decades to happen. Finally though, the district joined with the City of Oakland and East Bay Regional Park District to establish a facility on a site 1,540 feet above sea level, far from most of the competing lights.
On August 19, 2000, Chabot Space & Science Center (CSSC) opened its doors in Joaquin Miller Park on Skyline Boulevard. The original telescopes, Leah and Rachel, (126 years old and 91 years old, respectively) continue in service in their own observatories. Then there is the center's crown jewel, a 36 inch reflecting telescope mounted in a building shaped like an upside down 'U'. The roof of this building slides back so "Nellie" can strut her stuff for amateur and professional stargazers alike. Since going into operation in 2003, Nellie is the only "research level" telescope in the United States open to the public. In 2005, a special eyepiece was fashioned to allow wheelchair-bound enthusiasts a peek at the universe.
Students have special privileges during the day, including working in a fully operational "Mission Control" simulator complete with computer consoles, communications and a mock spacecraft to launch and monitor. The center also sponsors Galaxy Explorers, a kind of "space scouts" program for at-risk youth. They're often found in the telescope laboratory along with other kids, some older than your grandparents, devoting considerable time and energy to the serious play of building and servicing telescopes, including a few competition winners.
Come dusk on Fridays and Saturdays, visitors may glimpse the stars for free until 10:30 p.m., weather permitting. Numerous other attractions are available to the public, both days and evenings, for modest admission fees. These include planetarium shows, "mega dome" movies, cafˇ and juice bar with live entertainment; a gift shop; and dozens of displays, charts, photos and interactive educational tools.
Don't miss walking through a red-tinted portal guarded by skinny, green creatures - yes, Martians. (We never did learn why "Martians" are green!) Inside the Mars Exhibit, you will find Hollywood science-fiction movies and posters, plus plenty of images sent by two for-real Mars rovers still diligently exploring the planet surface two years after they were supposed to run out of power. NASA has done well with these gems.
You might also run into Gerald McKeegan, busily explaining, demonstrating and answering inquiries. He and his fellow volunteers, along with a courteous and well-informed staff, can't help but let their enthusiasm show in work that is pure pleasure for them.
Caution: reaching for the stars may be habit-forming!
To learn more about CSSC programs and activities, call (510) 336-7300; or visit their excellent website, www.chabotspace.org.
Chabot Space & Science Center
10000 Skyline Blvd.
Varying hours and activities