Posts Tagged ‘Mennonite Village Museum’


Big crowd disrupts schedule

November 23, 1985

Thousands see Halley, get a look at Jupiter

THE HEATER IN THE VAN DIDN’T work very well, and we thought that was an advantage for the big telescope in the back. Telescopes need to be the same temperature as the surrounding air to avoid air currents in the tube and the resulting degradation of the image. The cool air was relief. Bill Peters and I were over-dressed in anticipation of standing for hours in the cold. The newly-emerged stars were motionless above the speeding countryside. We were heading for Steinbach.

One sure way to guarantee a blizzard is to plan a public observing night. We were rejoicing: the sky was cloudless, and the temperature was unseasonably warm. Bill looked at the thin crescent moon about to set in the west. “That moon is like an advertisement,” he said, “lots of people will see it and think of Comet Halley Sky Watch No. 1. We could have a good turn out.”

It was Nov. 15, and we had announced that this would be the first chance for people to see Comet Halley. We wanted to be out of Winnipeg to avoid the light pollution, but l wondered how many people would drive to see a little fuzzy object in a telescope.

Excellent facilities

We thought we were well prepared. The Mennonite Village Museum was providing excellent facilities, including a heated restaurant and lecture room, and an adjacent lot with electricity for the telescopes. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Winnipeg Centre, and the Manitoba Astronomical Club were bringing a total of 14 telescopes. There would be a series of indoor lectures, and two television crews: Switchback and CBC 24 Hours Late Night News. All we needed was a few people to show up.

We arrived at 6:30 p.m., an hour before the public was invited. There already were a few dozen cars, and a fair crowd of people. Peter Goertzen, director of the Museum, said they had started to arrive at 5 p.m.

I began to wonder if we really were prepared. During the next hour the flow of cars arriving increased from about one a minute, to bumper-to-bumper. The large yard for telescopes was as crowded as cocktail party, and half of the telescopes hadn’t arrived. Many members of the committee were still in their cars, trying to drive into the site. The TV crews were showing up and some of the kids had discovered that Laurie Mustard was here! Now I was sure. We were not prepared for the crowds.

Winnipeg Free Press 1985nov23 Planetarium Sky Watch number 1

Comet watchers lined up at the Steinbach Mennonite Village Museum for a look through a telescope

The next hour-and-a-half was a blur of setting up telescopes, working with TV crews, giving astronomical talks to groups, and telling countless people where the comet was in the sky (at that time it was near the Pleiades), and that it was just possible to see it with 7 x 50 binoculars, but probably not in 7 x 30s. Some people wisely had brought their binoculars so they could learn how to find the comet, and then be able to follow it by themselves in the weeks to come. I remember everyone as being very friendly, patient, and in remarkably good spirits as we tried to get our act together. Someone estimated there were more than 2,000 visitors.

Although it looked like a clear evening, there were some ice crystals at low altitude and it made the comet, which was low in the east, hard to spot, even in the bigger telescopes.

Some time after 9 p.m., things calmed down. The telescopes had arrived, were set up, and cooled to air temperature. Comet Halley was high enough to be seen in even the smallest telescopes, and the lines of people were moving in an orderly fashion. It was hard to believe. Our carefully worked out schedule of who was supposed to be at what post was in a shambles, but it didn’t really matter. The evening was mild enough that the telescope operators agreed to stay outside for more than the planned 1/2 hour shifts.

“Look down into this plumbing,” I said for the, umpteenth time, referring to the eyepiece that was at right angles to the telescope, “and move your head until you see the stars. The comet is right in the centre of the field. It looks as if someone has erased some of the black of the sky.” Often, to make sure that people were actually seeing Comet Halley, I would ask them to describe what they saw. “A piece of lint” said Laurie Mustard.

Early in the evening, some of the telescopes were focused on the planet Jupiter, until it settled into the trees. Towards 11 p.m. people had a chance to see the Andromeda Galaxy, and the greenish fan-shaped Great Orion Nebula. By that time the sky was clear, the lines relatively short, and many folks looked at the comet several times through a variety of telescopes. One of the plans that had not materialized was to count the number of people who attended. Judging by the length of lines at telescopes, and the number of cars that had arrived, we estimated we had shown Comet Halley to about 4,000 people.

The comet was not impressive, but this was only the first look. Between now and January it will move rapidly from the eastern sky to the western sky at sunset. During this time, it will grow from a small, dim, hazy patch of light, to the traditional image of a comet — complete with a tail. If it continues to develop as we have predicted, by Jan. 10, everyone should he able to see it without the benefit of a telescope. It is my hope that some of the people who saw it at this early stage will be able to feel that they have personal sense of this astronomical object, hurtling through space and being transformed by its encounter with the sun.

Next viewing

On Monday I had a call from someone who wanted to know when Comet Halley Sky Watch No. 2 would be held. We are planning several programs including something for mid-December and at least one in January. Comet Halley Sky Watch No. 2 will be a more modest event at the Fort Whyte Centre for Environmental Education Dec. 8. The space for this one is limited and there is a charge. For information call, the Fort Whyte Centre

In 1985 Robert Ballantyne was director of the Manitoba Planetarium. His weekly column in the Winnipeg Free Press, called Sky Watch, focused on the return of Comet Halley.

© 1985 Robert Ballantyne and The Winnipeg Free Press

Sky Watch - Robert Ballantyne | Winnipeg Free Press