Looking into the Past From Our Own Backyard

By: Kiel Watson, Student Life Editor

One of the disadvantages to living in a metropolitan area is that when you go outside at night and look up at the sky, there isn’t much there to see. That wasn’t the case for those who ventured out last weekend to the Island Lake Recreation Area in Brighton for Astronomy at the Beach 2017. Amateurs and professionals set up telescopes along the beach and grass to give the public a chance to view a dazzling array of images from our solar system and beyond, and witness experiments set up by sponsors. The largest of the telescopes had to be towed to the site, and was able to offer a clear view of the Hercules Globular Cluster, whose light traveled for approximately 22,000 years to reach the eyes of those that stood in line to look.

The University of Michigan-Dearborn was one of several organizations that had tables set up indoors where it was easier to see. The table was helmed by Dr. Carrie Swift, who was there to share information about the university’s astronomy program, undergraduate education and research. When asked about the school’s involvement in the event, Dr. Swift said, “The UM-Dearborn Observatory participates in Astronomy at the Beach to publicize all aspects of the the University’s Astronomy program – public outreach, undergraduate education and research.” She added that the university also provides information about UM-Dearborn to prospective students, and update alumni about what’s new on campus. “We also participate to support the efforts of local amateur astronomers,” she said,” who have always been supportive of our outreach events.”

The key speaker for the night was astronomer and University of Michigan alumnus Dan Durda. His main research focus and area of interest lie not in planets and stars, but on the asteroids and comets that join planet earth in its journey around the sun. During his talk he described some of the ways impact craters are studied and analysis of the craters left  by nuclear weapons tests. Given the fact that those tests no longer happen, to simulate an extinction level asteroid impact in the field for a National Geographic television special Durda used around 5,000 pounds of explosives. “We made a crater 55 feet wide and 12 feet deep,” said Durda, “If you bury the explosive charge at just the right depth, it simulates the point in the ground from where an impacting projectile will spread most of its energy out.”

While the late night beach event happens for one weekend only, the observatory on the third floor of the Science Learning and Research Center hosts public observation nights on Wednesdays. For those that would prefer a different perspective of the stars, the Hammond Planetarium, located next door at Henry Ford College (HFC), offers a weekly show titled ‘The Road Not Taken: A Fall Star Talk.’

The two free  public programs are operated by the Dearborn Astronomy Group, a team of professors, lecturers and researchers from U of M Dearborn and HFC. Both the observatory at U of M Dearborn and the Hammond Planetarium  are relatively recent additions to the Dearborn college landscape. The SLRC building was dedicated in October 2006, with the 12.5 ft diameter dome containing the telescope perched on the roof of the third floor. The telescope itself  was built by  DFM Engineering, Inc., at a cost of $98,000.

The planetarium was dedicated in the spring of 2012 after a generous bequeathment by decorated WWII veteran Guy Hammond upon his death in 2010. The endowment helped the Science Education Center on the HFC campus in addition to the Hammond Planetarium, giving students at both Institutions a cutting edge glimpse into the universe.