BOSTON (CBS) — The Director of Astronomy at the Mariah Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket has a suggestion for Island visitors: “Look up at the night sky, wherever and whenever you can.”
It’s Michael West’s first summer as head of the Observatory.
He calls it his ‘dream job’ because it’s a combination of research and public outreach at one of the best stargazing spots on the East Coast.
WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Mary Blake reports
It’s also in Mariah Mitchell’s backyard.
“I think Mariah Mitchell is a great role model for young scientists. She really believed in learning through hands on experience. Books are important, but you really learn when you have to do it yourself,” West explains.
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Mariah Mitchell was an educator, librarian, scientist and astronomer. She discovered a comet in October of 1847. It brought her international acclaim, but she is still unknown to many.
“One of my goals, since I’ve come here, is to get her name recognized as much as that of Amelia Earhart,” says West.
West’s previous jobs include teaching in Hawaii, and for the past seven years, he worked for the European organization that is building the world’s biggest telescope Chile.
He says both spots are the two best stargazing locations on the planet. Now, he fields questions from Observatory visitors on Nantucket three nights a week.
“We show people different things in the sky. You can see the Milky Way at the moment. It’s really beautiful. We are also looking at Saturn. You can see the rings of Saturn which look really beautiful right now. We are also looking at a star cluster called the Hercules Cluster. It’s 300,000 stars and you can see their collective glow. It’s 25,000 light years from Earth and was discovered by Edmund Haley, who discovered Haley’s Comet,” West says.
The Mariah Mitchell Observatory currently has two telescopes. One is a refracting telescope that was donated to the Mariah Mitchell Association in 1908.
“It’s an antique,” says West.
The second telescope was purchased a few years ago for $240,000.
“It’s 24 inches across and uses a mirror to collect light, ” says West. He adds, “In fact, it’s one of the biggest telescopes around that the public can actually look through an eye piece and see different things. We also use the modern telescope for research.”
The Mariah Mitchell Association has had a summer research program for students for more than 50 years.
“After we close, the students will keep observing through most of the night. We’re studying cannibal galaxies right now. These are galaxies that are eating other ones, and so we’re like forensic scientists. We’re trying to reconstruct the scene of the crime,” says West.
Emily Moravec is one of six college students studying at the Observatory this summer.
She is a Physics major from Lincoln Nebraska. She explains her research project.
“This galaxy is a very large galaxy. It attracted a smaller galaxy and literally ripped it apart. The ripped apart galaxy then left a stream of stars, which are very faint, so it takes a lot of time to look at this particular galaxy and see that stream of stars,” says Moravec. She adds, “I see Astronomy as an intellectual race between countries, but it is also a field where there are a lot of bonds between countries, too. It’s really a test of what we can do as humans and understand, as humans, both together and separately.”
“Astronomy is humbling in a lot of ways, and it makes your day to day problems seem unimportant when you sit back and look at the scale of everything. It’s pretty amazing,” says West.
He also says he wants people to be dazzled when they look up at the sky at night. He got hooked on the field after reading the book
“The Cosmic Connection” by Carl Sagan.
West was in high school at the time.
“Personally, I don’t understand why everybody isn’t an astronomer,” he says.