Viewport: From the Director
Something New Under the Sun
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, November 2011
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Air & Space.
Museums should be places of discovery, where people can find the unexpected. One of the unexpected things you can find at the National Air and Space Museum is the Public Observatory, built in 2009 on the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first look at the heavens through a telescope.
You’d hardly expect to see a powerful telescope in the center of a city, when observatories are often located on remote mountaintops, and even amateur stargazing is done far from city lights. But the idea behind the Public Observatory, which you’ll read about on page 14 of this issue, was to put a telescope where the people are, and with major funding from the National Science Foundation, we put one right here on the National Mall. More than 100,000 visitors have used this telescope to gaze at the star they know best: the sun. (The telescope uses filters to make viewing the sun safe. No one should look directly at the sun through a telescope without a filter.)
Although the sun is a daily presence in our lives, most of us weren’t able to see it in its full glory until 1973, the year Skylab was launched. Space enthusiasts remember Skylab as the first U.S. space station, where astronauts learned how long stays in space affect the human body. What has gained less attention over time is that a suite of instruments attached to the station provided more than 150,000 images of the sun that showed scientists details they’d never seen before. To highlight Skylab’s role in the history of solar research, we’ve created at the base of the Skylab Orbital Workshop—a backup model of the station donated by NASA in 1975 and displayed in the Space Race gallery—an exhibit on spacecraft that have solved some of the mysteries of our closest star. Mysteries remain though, and as part of this solar research exhibit, we show in near-real-time stunning images from a spacecraft now studying the sun, the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Look at the sun as the SDO sees it, then walk outside to view it through a telescope.
Although you need no preparation to use the Observatory—educators are on hand to show you how to use the telescope and explain features of the sun, the moon, and any planets you see—you may want to first tour our gallery Explore the Universe, where exhibits explain how telescopes work, what the electromagnetic spectrum is, and how scientists use charge-coupled devices (CCDs) and spectroscopy to enhance their observations. In the Observatory, you can experience the practical application of these tools to see features you wouldn’t be able to see with your eyes alone.
Even though there’s plenty to learn at the Observatory during the day, the telescope affords spectacular views of the moon and planets at night. Beginning this month, we’re hosting a NASA-sponsored evening lecture series on many of the discoveries made in astronomy in recent decades. When the lectures occur on clear nights, we’ll invite the audience to make their own discoveries in the Public Observatory.
J.R. Dailey is the director of the national Air and Space Museum.