See Planets and Stars at Rogers Observatory in Traverse City

Darren Sabuda writes about taking his children to 
see the Northern Michigan night sky-canvas of planets and stars at the Rogers Observatory in Traverse City. Read on, then head to the Rogers Observatory for your own galactic experience.

The genesis for the trip to Northwestern Michigan College’s Rogers Observatory took place in an early 1990s college Astronomy 101 class. The word “lecture” doesn’t do justice to my gray-haired and tenured instructor’s attempt to educate a couple hundred or so undergraduates on the complexities of our known universe. He had the ability to go beyond lecturing and give “performances” worthy of academic Emmys. Fast forward 21 years and the simple life of an undergraduate seems as distant as the constellations in the night sky of Northern Michigan. When I walk out my back door on the west side of Traverse City, the stars puncture the inky-black sky with a clarity that was nonexistent in my last zip code. I considered myself lucky if I glimpsed a handful of stars on a clear Chicago night while waiting for my dog to do her business in the dimly lit alley behind my one-bedroom condo. When making the transition from Chicago to Traverse City, I was excited at the prospect of less light pollution and wider, more open vistas. The opportunity to visit a local observatory, located just a few miles south of Northwestern Michigan College’s campus and perched roughly 250 feet above the surrounding landscape, made me feel like a kid in a galactic candy shop.

Learning about astronomy all those years ago in a large lecture hall and at the campus observatory came back to me with the burning intensity of a shooting star. I wanted to get back out into the known universe through Northwestern Michigan College’s public viewings, which occur once or twice a month throughout the year. This time around I wanted to share the infinite beauty of the night sky with my 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. Maybe I’d plant a seed of inspiration for their young minds to cultivate into something more than an occasional glimpse skyward at the moon and stars.

The plan is to take my children to Rogers Observatory to witness and experience what I did all those years ago: stars popping out of the darkest and largest canvas known to artists the world over; constellations that tell stories worthy of the literary praise; planets orbiting our solar system’s star; and pure horizon-expanding wonder.

We arrive a few minutes after 9 p.m. on a beautiful Saturday night. The human activity taking place in and around Traverse City is putting on a show below us, while the setting sun and the moon, which is just one day shy of full, do their best to lift our collective gaze skyward. We look through an eight-inch telescope set up outside the observatory’s building and see the planet Venus. Next we enter the observatory building and climb a spiral staircase to a second-story telescope in a domed, rotating room bathed in red light with a large opening in the roof.

My kids’ questions begin. “Why are the lights red and why does the room spin in circles and have a big hole in the roof?” After answering these questions I direct their attention to the large telescope and what it is pointed at: Saturn and its rings. More questions regarding space, rocket ships, and how astronauts use the toilet are asked as we descend the stairs and walk out into the now darkened night.

My fears of late-night tiredness and meltdowns are completely unfounded; their energy levels are reaching stellar heights. I consider that the nearly full Northern Michigan moon may have something to do with this, although I cannot be sure. To expend some of this energy we play a game of chase, with me playing a space alien, on the observatory’s moonlit grounds. My children laugh and shriek. Finally, they start to slow down, and we walk to our car. As I strap them into their car seats I ask them if they had fun. In unison they reply with a sleepy, “Yes, Dada.” On the drive home I can’t help but imagine someday they might be strapped into a high-tech seat on a space shuttle bound for galactic travel and remember this earth-bound evening in Northwest Lower Michigan.

Darren Sabuda writes from Traverse City. 
[email protected]

*Click for a calendar of public viewing nights at the Rogers Observatory in Traverse City.

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