Cal State Long Beach astronomy lecturer Jessica Asbell pointed toward the evening sky.
“Oh! Did you see that?” she exclaimed to the group gathered on the Hall of Science rooftop.
A conversation about supernovas, the Milky Way and possible life forms in the galaxy suddenly came to a stop. Asbell explained that the flash of light she saw was a meteor or possible space junk, even though others thought it was a shooting star.
“Do we know what a meteor is? It’s a burning rock. Not a star,” she said. “Thank goodness. If it was a star, we’d be in trouble.”
With help from several student assistants, Asbell plays hosts to Nights at the Observatory every Tuesday night, weather permitting, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. The community event is open to all students, staff, faculty, Long Beach community members and anyone interested in visiting campus.
“They [local residents] are allowed to come, and they are welcome,” said Andreas Bill, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “It’s also a good thing for young people, if families come with young children. They get interested in the university they get interested in science. It’s good for the population around here.”
Bill had a hand in encouraging Asbell to make Nights at the Observatory a regular event. Observation nights did happen on campus before, but were mostly for lab or classroom purposes.
The well-attended events, which see anywhere from 30 to 70 people, have sparked more interest in astronomy on campus, Bill said. Each informal event encourages attendees to ask questions and have discussions about outer space.
“Every time I show someone Saturn, it’s an immediate ‘Whoa!’” Asbell said. “I never get tired of that. Or the moon, the moon really gets people going. When you look at the moon through a telescope, you’re zooming in on the geology, so you really see mountain ranges and craters. You can see those seas of frozen lava and people are like, ‘It’s real! Look at that!’”
After setting up two Celestron professional computerized 800 telescopes, student assistants shared their knowledge, whether it’s scientific or mythological.
“We think it’s really cool that all these people get to come up here and see the different aspects of the community, so it’s not just physics majors,” said Molly Owens, an animation major who also runs social media for the CSULB Astronomy Club. “A ton of different types of people come - we get to see everything together.”
Nights at the Observatory also serves a purpose for students in astronomy or physics classes. Unlike other life sciences, including biology, chemistry, geology or physics, you can’t really see or touch astronomy in the earth setting.
“Just getting people to look through the telescope and tell them, ‘Oh yeah, remember that binary star I told you about in class? You may have heard of in a movie like ‘Interstellar.’ It’s right there!’” Asbell said. “Through the eyepiece, it’s not quite like a picture, it feels more real because you’re seeing it in real time.”
In the future, Asbell said that she would like to offer more specialized events with lectures and themed nights for different departments. She also said the department is looking into purchasing a larger telescope and building a storage dome on top of the Hall of Science building so the telescopes can adjust to the environment.
“To see something very well, because there’s so much light pollution from the city, it’d be nice to have a larger telescope, which can gather more light and form better images,” Asbell said.
Nights at the Observatory is held every Tuesday during the academic year. Viewing may be canceled due to weather conditions. Last-minute announcements will be made the @CSULBPhysics Twitter account.
To contribute to Nights at the Observatory and the department of Physics and Astronomy, visit the “Give to CSULB” page and click on the “College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics” tab.