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With telescopes both inside and out, Museum educators use a variety of filters to show visitors spots on the sun, craters on the moon, and the phases of Venus. (Eric Long)

In the Museum: The People’s Observatory

Bringing telescopes where the people are.

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Clouds are the enemy.

From This Story

As a line of tourists snakes across the National Air and Space Museum’s east terrace waiting to (safely) look at the sun through the observatory’s telescope, a bank of dark clouds drifts overhead.

“Could you see anything at all?” Dennis McLaughlin asks a visitor peering into the Museum’s portable hydrogen-alpha telescope sitting next to the observatory’s dome.

“A little bit,” the young man replies. “Then it started to go black as the clouds moved in. I was like ‘Oh no!’ ”

“It’s a measure of your dedication if you’re willing to wait,” says McLaughlin, one of 20 volunteers who staff the Museum’s Public Observatory Project each Wednesday and Saturday.

About 100 visitors pass through the dome each hour it’s open during the summer months. “I think they’re awed,” says Jane Mason, who has been volunteering at the observatory for a year. “There are concepts here that visitors may not think about every day, such as the size of the sun, or the idea that the sun changes.”

As the sun enters the active period of its 11-year cycle, visitors are more likely to see sunspots and other phenomena such as prominences (dense gas extended from the sun’s surface, often in the shape of a loop) and filaments (a prominence that is seen head-on, and looks like a barbed wire).

“See a tiny, wispy bump on the lower right-hand edge of the red disk?” McLaughlin asks a visitor. “That’s a prominence; the area of that might be the same as four or five Earths.”

Sunspots—which can be 1,000 degrees cooler than the surrounding area—grow as big in diameter as two or three Earths.

The observatory, which houses a 16-inch Boller & Chivens telescope, can accommodate 25 to 30 people at a time. “That was the original intent, of course: to create a public space where we could show groups the heavens,” says astronomy curator David DeVorkin.

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