Lanphier Observatory, the most beautiful classroom on Earth


By Pat Stinson
Sun contributor

“We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them to discover it within themselves.”
– Galileo Galilei, the “Father of Modern Science and Observational Astronomy”

It’s almost 10 p.m. and the hottest July 20th on record here since 1977. Undaunted, humans are thicker than mosquitoes on the deck above the beach at The Leelanau School’s C.H. Lanphier Observatory.

There’s a cooling breeze from Lake Michigan, the haze has cleared, and the first night-sky objects are visible to the naked eye: bright star Spica and dimmer planet Saturn in the west-southwest, yellow star Arcturus in the west.

“Don’t grab the telescope; keep your hands on the ladder!” booms Norm Wheeler, the observatory’s director, as he opens the door and beckons people inside and up the ladder to the telescope’s dome.

One by one, 19 curious onlookers climb the wooden rungs and form a circle around the dome’s perimeter. When everyone is in, Wheeler drops the trapdoor and cuts off any means of escape.

It’s a captive audience, regardless.

All eyes are fixed on the 13” Schmidt-Cassegrain at the dome’s center and on Wheeler as he takes a momentary seat in the glow of his laptop’s monitor. He spins the dome until a vertical opening in the roof (the shutter) is perfectly aligned with the first heavenly body on the night’s viewing schedule: the planet Saturn. Next, he punches coordinates into the Sky 6 program on his computer and the telescope whirs into position. Modem-like noises fill the darkness and bring to mind giant radio telescopes featured in the 1997 movie “Contact.”

Wheeler shares that Saturn, named after the Roman god of “farming,” is 900 million miles away. There are a couple of gasps from his listeners as he explains that light from the second-largest planet in our solar system takes 1.5 hours to reach Earth — or 90 light minutes.

“You’re looking into the past,” he says. “It’s old light.”

The astronomer answers a couple of questions before using a joystick to fine-tune the telescope’s aim. He tells them that Saturn’s rings are almost edge-on, but at other times the rings are tilted toward Earth. He invites them to take their turn at the eyepiece.

“That’s cool!”

“Pretty neat!”

When everyone has viewed the gaseous planet, Wheeler moves the dome and adjusts the telescope to view Alberio, a double star in the Cygnus or swan constellation. He points toward the shutter, to an iridium satellite glowing blue as it travels south across the sky. Necks crane to catch a glimpse (and a breeze) from the dome’s narrow slit.

A single word is shouted as a younger member of the audience sees the double star for the first time through the telescope.

“Epic!” the boy blurts, as Wheeler reminds his listeners that, while Saturn is 90 light minutes from Earth, Alberio is 380 or so light years away.

The Ring Nebula is next (4,100 light years’ distant), followed by the Great Globular Cluster of Hercules — 300,000 stars approximately 25,100 light years away.

The telescopic presentation is over and Wheeler answers questions about the telescope. (Read Wheeler’s 2003 Glen Arbor Sun story about the Lanphier Observatory). Everyone then descends the ladder and joins 25 or more newcomers on the deck for an eyeball survey of the brightest objects and many of the constellations. Afterward, the new arrivals follow Wheeler inside as the first group departs. As they leave, their bodies are swallowed by night, but their minds, filled with star stuff, are lighting new paths in the darkness.

Q&A with Norm Wheeler

Are you a volunteer?

I get paid a stipend for running the Observatory open house two nights per week each summer. That was part of the agreement when Charles Lanphier donated the facility to The Leelanau School: Public education in astronomy.

In your experience, what brings out the most folks?

Great views of planets that are publicized in the mainstream media bring out the most viewers. Several years ago Mars was at a close approach to Earth, and we had lines of people down the boardwalk waiting to get into the dome.

Who visits the observatory?

Our audience is families, many kids, people from The Homestead who walk down the beach, but also people who drive a long ways to look through a telescope on a nice summer night.

What questions are asked most frequently?

Most frequent questions: What is the power of the telescope? How does the telescope work? Is that really Saturn, or do you have a cool slide hidden in here? What is the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen through this telescope? (To that I always answer with another question: You mean on the beach, or in the sky?)

What questions are your favorites?

My favorites are the questions that follow from the discussion about how looking through space means looking backwards in time. Also, the exclamations of disbelief and awe never get old.

Over the years, has your audience seemed more or less savvy about astronomy/space?

Many of the young people continue to be well educated and curious regarding topics in Astronomy, just like always.

What one thing would you like them to learn about the night sky?

I guess, as an astronomer, you want people to feel a sense of wonder and curiosity so that they will pay more attention to the night sky and want to learn more about it, including the names of the constellations, what meteors are, why the moon goes through phases and what they are, etc.

Most memorable viewing event(s) at the observatory?

Comets Hale-Bopp and Hayakutake during back-to-back years were memorable viewings. Showing the students partial solar eclipses during mid-day is always a hoot.

How long have you had the computer software?

This is the third summer with the computer software that points the telescope. I have seen many things with this new mount I had never found aiming the scope manually.

Are there any upcoming celestial events that folks might want to observe there?

The Perseid Meteor Shower around Aug. 12 is always a highlight for us at the Observatory, because you have to watch the whole sky to see them.

Can folks rent the observatory and you for a private showing/party?

I am happy to meet groups for viewing. We just work out a fee and have a back-up night in case it’s cloudy on the first night we planned to meet. The fee is usually about the same as during the summer: $3 for adults, $2 for students, little kids free.

If skies are clear, the observatory is open Wed. and Thurs., 10 p.m. to midnight, June 22-Aug. 25. Follow the boardwalk behind The Leelanau School’s Student Center to the beach. Call (231) 334-5890 for more information.