Seeing red – and loving it Stargazers led by Dr. Chris Keating, an assistant physics professor at The University of South Dakota, set up telescopes in a campus parking lot this week to get a glimpse of the red planet. It's been 60,000 years since Mars has orbited this close to Earth. (Photo courtesy of NASA) by Maya Ristic The last time Mars came this close to Earth, our ancestors were living in caves and struggling to make basic tools out of rocks.
Tens of thousands of years later, people around the world � including a group of local stargazers led by Dr. Chris Keating, an assistant physics professor at The University of South Dakota, used everything from simple telescopes to a vast array of high-tech digital and optical equipment this week to observe the "red planet" as it passes.
The parking lot near the Neuharth Media Center on the USD campus was busy with people hoping to get a glimpse of Mars on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights.
Keating and others set up telescopes and invited the public to join them in getting a once-in-a-lifetime look at the planet.
"Mars is as close as it's ever been in 60,000 years," Keating said.
His desire to help university students and others interested in the stars isn't limited to simply placing viewing equipment in parking lots.
He hopes the university one day can return to the days when it had its own telescope housed in a small observatory.
Plans are in the works for a dome housing a telescope to be placed atop a new observatory slated for completion next year on the north edge of campus.
Keating has retrieved the dome from the university's original 1916 observatory and wants to put it on the new building. He has also tracked down an antique refracting telescope that was once housed at USD.
Both the old observatory and 1875 telescope were destined for destruction but were saved at the last minute, Keating said. When the old observatory was torn down in 1972, the old dome was sold as scrap metal. It was saved and the current owners have donated it back to USD, said Keating. Most recently, the telescope had been stored at the W.H. Over Museum in Vermillion.
Keating said the research-grade observatory, when completed, would benefit college and K-12 students, the community, and the state of South Dakota.
He has actively been working on grants, asking for approximately $100,000 for establishing the observatory. So far, $50,000 has been raised.
"If I have to build this observatory until I retire, than that's
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just what I'll have to do," Keating said.
The idea for a telescope didn't come overnight. He looked at plans for a proposed observatory, which was turned down in 1972, for inspiration to build a new one.
"I looked at the publicity that it would bring for the department and the university, and the wealth of opportunities it would bring for the community," Keating said. "This will also give hands-on experience for the students."
The observatory housing the telescope likely will be located at the north end of the old city golf course which is now owned by USD.
However, Keating is concerned about the light pollution on Highway 50. If people used a philosophy of "smarter is better," he said, the amount of artificial light that obscures the view of stars and planets at night could be reduced.
"We want to convince people about their lighting (and use) direct lighting where you want it to be. Also, don't over-light because it becomes a public safety issue. For example, use lower impact lighting," Keating said.
The telescope housed in the proposed observatory would be remote control operated.
"With a high-quality telescope, there would be better viewing, lower-cost maintenance, and less man-power input," Keating said. "We have raised $50,000 so far. With $100,000 we could begin minimal operation but not with the telescope we would like."
The USD Foundation has set up an observatory fund that is collecting donations, according to an Associated Press news report. Funding also is being sought from companies and the federal government.
"Funds are tight everywhere, but I will collect aluminum cans � anything � to raise money for this," Keating said.
A new observatory will benefit the public as well as USD students and staff, said Tina Keller, chairwoman of the USD
Earth Science and Physics Department.
The department wants to put a special emphasis on reaching K-12 students, she said.
"We plan for this telescope to be connected to the Internet and have the ability to be operated via remote control," she said. "Students and others will still be able to visit the observatory so they may experience looking through the telescope with their own eyes, but we will also have the ability to conduct research remotely."
South Dakota can become a worldwide leader in astronomy, Keating told the AP.
"We benefit from the wide-open spaces and wonderful dark skies. South Dakota doesn't have a lot of people and has
no major cities. It's great for star gazing," he said. "When you take satellite photos of the East Coast, from Washington, DC to Boston, it's solid light. You couldn't begin to look at the sky with all that light."
Keating sees a key role for smaller facilities such as the one planned for USD.
"Large observatories are overburdened, and they are wanted all the time. There is a need for what we are doing," he said. "This (observatory) will break new ground for USD."
Mars will have traveled far from Earth once again by the time the local observatory is constructed.
If the university had the facility on campus this week, it no doubt would be a very busy place.
Mars is so close to Earth that with a telescope, observers can make out fine distinctions on the surface of the planet.
"Through a telescope, one can see the atmosphere is thick with ice-caps," Keating said.
Mars will not be this close to Earth again until Aug. 28, 2287.
"Astronomy is very dynamic � there's something new going on every semester," Keating said. "I think university and K-12 students should take advantage of this opportunity."