The Stars of Pelee

by Heather Greene

It was a cloudy night on Pelee Island’s east side, but we all agreed that the astronomer couldn’t be blamed for that. He was, however, responsible for holding more than forty listeners captivated as he shared photos, slides, video clips, facts and stories of our incredible universe.

Explore Pelee’s second Biking and Astronomy Weekend of the 2012 season took place last week, and I was lucky enough to attend the highlight event: the astronomer-led stargazing! The evening began at the East Park Campground, where dozens of islanders and curious visitors gathered under the trees, armed with popcorn, flashlights, and lots of bug spray. Royal Astronomical Society member Steve Pellarin began with a slide show that provided a broad overview of astronomical topics. Had I told friends that I was headed to an astronomy slide-show in the woods, I wouldn’t have blamed them for turning tail and heading to the island tavern instead. But I quickly became part of Mr. Pellarin’s attentive audience – at some points rapt – for his display of NASA images, photographs that he had taken himself through telescopes, video clips demonstrating the mind-boggling difference in size between our planet and the largest stars (called hypergiants), and answers to questions from left and right. It’s obvious that Steve is a teacher (high school physics), as he was clearly comfortable in front of his audience, cracking jokes and offering real-life comparisons with ease. Like the fact that Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, has lakes and rivers of liquid ethane – practically a whole moon full of free gas!

The second part of the evening, the one everyone was most looking forward to, was the telescope demonstration and stargazing. We all trekked out into the campground’s sports field and gathered around a hulking dark shape, which turned out to be the largest telescope most of us had ever seen up close. Most impressive was that Steve had built it himself (with help from friends and family), and it was easily over eight feet long and moved on a meticulously balanced frame with the touch of his hand. The entire scope weighed in at 275 pounds, especially since the main mirror is over 90 pounds on its own! This behemoth required a ladder to look through the eyepiece, and won silver at a 2009 international competition of telescope-makers.

The “Leviathan”, as the telescope is named, allowed participants a better view of the heavenly bodies than most of us have enjoyed before. As a dark sky location, Pelee Island is an ideal spot for stargazing and skywatching, and even though we had to play peek-a-boo with the clouds, Steve pointed out the Big and Little Dipper (Ursa Major and Minor, to be professional), the North Star (Polaris), at least one planet, satellites, and parts of many other constellations. He was helped in this task by his military-grade laser pointer, which is so powerful and far-reaching that licenses have been required to own one since 9/11. The pointer allowed Steve to point directly at each star, eliminating the usual “Which one? Where? I can’t see it!” frustrations.

During the course of the evening, I’m pretty sure I learned more from Steve Pellarin than I did in my entire university astronomy course. At least, having the hands-on experience of looking through a scope taller than I am means that I’ll remember more of it, I hope! Who knew that stars came in a rainbow of colours? And that Steve once spotted a purple star circling an orange one? And that time slows down around black holes, so that if you travelled around one in a space ship, you would return to earth only aged as long as you’d been away, while everyone you had left behind would be dead and gone for generations?? My mind was blown at multiple points during the night with facts like these. It’s for that reason, and for the experience of staring at the night sky with dozens of others, while fireflies winked like Christmas lights all around us, that I’m glad I attended. I’ll definitely be back next year, and if you’re looking for an enjoyable and educational night on the island, I hope to meet you there as well.

If you’re interested in learning more about the night sky or astronomer Steve Pellarin, his website www.leviathanastronomy.com provides a wealth of information. 

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