Growing up, Dr. Carrie Fitzgerald, professor of physics, saved up the money she earned from babysitting to buy her first telescope. Now she shares her passion for the stars with her students and community members in the Montgomery College Astronomical Observatory.
The rooftop observatory, located on the Rockville Campus, is home to two permanently mounted 14-inch telescopes atop the Science Center. The telescopes are motor-driven to compensate for the rotation of the earth under the sky and to allow users to see stars and planets in a whole new way.
Fitzgerald says, for example, you can see Jupiter with the naked eye—it appears in the sky as a star-like object—but with the telescope, you get a more detailed view. The planet appears more like a disk and you can see the four Galileo moons—so called because they were first seen by the astronomer in 1610 with his own handmade telescope. With the telescope, you can see also see Saturn’s rings and what Fitzgerald describes as a “stunning” view of the moon.
The telescope also let users see “deep sky objects,” those not visible to the naked eye, including nebulae, which are clouds of dust and gas in the galaxy.
“The ring nebula is a particularly good example,” Fitzgerald says. Also known as M57, this planetary nebula is part of the constellation of Lyra and is located 2,300 light-years from Earth. A light-year is the distance that light, the fastest thing in the universe, travels in one year—nearly six trillion miles.
The telescope also lets users see globular clusters—a massive group of stars—and binary or double star systems where the stars are gravitationally bound and orbiting one another.
One couple came to the observatory for their first date—and got married a few years later.
During guest nights, the public is invited to share in the excitement of discovery. Fitzgerald says, “People are really awed by it. One woman was so stunned by what she saw in the telescope, she came back to look again and again.”
Fitzgerald herself shares the same sense of awe and delight every time she looks at the sky. “I got lucky and found something that really drove me. Astronomy is a part of my being.”
Gazing at the stars can be also be, well, romantic. One couple came to the observatory for their first date—and got married a few years later.
And while she can’t promise love, Fitzgerald says an evening at the observatory can be informative and inspirational. The observatory posts upcoming guest nights online and welcomes all stargazers.
(All photos by Carrie Fitzgerald)