Standing in a grassy field at the K-State Ag Research Center on Monday night, Andrew Werth minutes earlier had viewed Jupiter through a high-powered telescope.
Now the boy was looking at the big, dark sky overhead with his naked eyes.
“That’s not a shooting star, is it?” he asked his uncle, Shane Werth, who had brought him to the stargazing party sponsored by the Hays Public Library.
“No, that’s an airplane,” said Shane. “Shooting stars don’t blink like that.”
“I haven’t seen one of those in five years,” said Andrew. “I’ve always wanted one, to make a wish.”
The night was a perfect one for looking at the stars and planets, said Kendall Krug, of Hays, who brought his 5-inch refractor telescope and set it up for people to look through.
“It’s good to look at Jupiter now because it’s at the closest point in its orbit to Earth,” Krug said. “See that object over there? That’s a red giant, it’s called Antares. It’s in the constellation Scorpio, so as it gets darker you’ll really be able to see it.”
Jupiter and Antares aren’t always seen together, said Krug, who has loved astronomy since his college days at Fort Hays State University.
“Antares is far, far away,” Krug said. “Jupiter is in our solar system. It just happens to be close-by by chance.”
Armed with plenty of bug spray to fight off the mosquitoes, about 36 people had showed up by nearly 11 p.m. Wearing light jackets for the cool night, they saw stars twinkling against a clear, black sky.
The star of the star party might have been the telescope owned by the Rev. Fred Gatschet, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hays. Affixed to a small trailer that Gatschet pulls behind his car, the telescope is known for being the biggest one in the area.
“I am really happy with the number here,” said Abby Artz, program director for the library, who handed out snacks of star crunch and cosmic brownies. “And these guys are experts sharing their knowledge.”
Krug’s telescope excels at looking at the moon and bright planets, while Gatschet’s is better for the dimmer star clusters. Refractors provide a sharper image but have less magnification, Krug explained.
Gatschet’s is equipped with a 14-inch mirror, probably a magnification of 100 times, Krug said.
“The more light you can collect, the farther out you can see,” he said.
That compares to a magnification of 45 times for Krug’s telescope.
“So compared to your naked-eye view, it’s magnified 45 times,” he explained. “So just think how much bigger that lens is than your eye. Your eyes basically collect light, and this lens is 5 inches, and the lens in your eye is about 14 millimeters. So just think of the difference there, and with 14 inches, you get a lot of light.”
“It’s magnificent,” said Grace McCord, who observed Jupiter through Krug’s telescope. She came with her friend Keatyn Barnett. Both are sophomores at Hays High School.
“I saw it on the library’s Instagram page, and then I drug him here,” McCord said. “I just find it really fascinating.”
Rui Liu, an assistant scientist for the weed science program at the Research Center, came because she was curious.
“The stars are always nice to look at,” said Liu, but she was also noticing the abundance of fireflies, which she hadn’t seen in College Station, Texas, where eight months earlier she finished her doctoral degree in agronomy.
“I’d see fireflies when I was little, when I visited the relatives in the countryside,” Liu said. “It was fun to catch them.”
Krug explained that all the planets in the solar system rotate in the same plane, so sky observers always find them along the celestial ecliptic across the horizon.
“If you look in there you’re going to see Jupiter,” Krug said, adjusting his telescope. “It’s the bright object in the middle, and then those smaller dots are moons that are going around Jupiter. You can see four or five of them. In real life there’s like 30-some that they’ve discovered when they’ve sent probes up there.”
We don’t see all the moons because some are brighter than others.
They are called the Galilean moons, he said, because Galileo is the one who discovered them and also made some of the first telescopes.
The axis of the Earth is pointed at Polaris, also known as the North Star, Krug explained, pointing at the Big Dipper in the sky to the north.
“If you follow the two bottom stars in the dipper part, and you follow it over here to this faint star, that’s the North Star,” he said.
“We point our telescope axis, the rotation axis, at the North Star, because that star never changes position as the Earth rotates through the night. But as we rotate, the Big Dipper is going to go down. So if you were out here four hours from now, it would be down in the trees. But Polaris is always going to be there. And if you remember, Polaris is the handle of the Little Dipper.”
Shane Werth mentioned that he lives in the country between Morland and St. Peter, where “out on the farm now, I can see everything.”
He also had a chance to look through Gatschet’s telescope.
“I was always into this in school, in elementary school,” Werth said. “I learned everything I could about the stars, the planets, mythology.”
The event is one of Gatschet’s last in Hays, since the Salina Diocese in its routine reassignment of dozens of Kansas parish priests has assigned him now to Salina. Krug explained that Gatschet took up telescopes and stargazing while in college at Kansas State University in Manhattan and has shared the hobby with others for the past 30 years.
As Gatschet explained telescopes to the public, Krug and Curtis Sander, of Victoria, compared notes on their viewing of the Aug. 21, 2017, Great American Solar Eclipse.
“It’s fun to see other people look through a telescope who never have,” Krug told Sander.
Meanwhile, Katrina Hess, of Hays, commented on the stargazing enthusiasm of Krug, her husband.
“He’s an optometrist,” said Hess, also a physician in Hays. “Optometrists are always excited about optics.”