Astrophysics student duo to run observatory open house

by | Feb 22, 2015

Astrophysics students Matt Dennis and Matt Wentzel will run the 2015 Richard D. Schwartz Observatory Open House.
Astrophysics students Matt Dennis (front) and Matt Wentzel run the 2015 Richard D. Schwartz Observatory Open House. The next open house is at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 28. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Astrophysics students Matt Dennis (front) and Matt Wentzel run the 2015 Richard D. Schwartz Observatory Open House. The next open house is at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 28. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Tucked away quietly near the softball field on the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ North Campus is the Richard D. Schwartz Observatory. It’s where you’ll find a couple of Matts – Matt Wentzel and Matt Dennis – searching out stars and planets for the public on open house nights.

“We start with the moon,” said Wentzel, a senior physics major with an emphasis in astrophysics. “Then we go easiest to hardest objects to find. There are typically two big stars that we look at. One is called Albireo. It’s interesting because it’s a binary star system, where two stars are orbiting, but they’re different colors. One is red; one is blue. The other is Mizar, another binary star system that’s in the Big Dipper.”

While Wentzel keeps the telescopes (a 16 inch and an eight inch) in focus, Dennis explains to people what they’re seeing in the sky.

“It’s a good system that seems to work well,” said Dennis, a first-year graduate student in astrophysics. “Matt W. is an amateur telescope buff himself. I don’t own a telescope, so he’s actually a bit more skilled at finding targets in the sky than I am.”

Depending on the light and the weather, the duo may even be able to catch a glimpse of Andromeda, the nearest galaxy to Earth, for open house goers.

“Galaxies are much harder to find,” Wentzel said.

Although he did once manage to capture a very fuzzy, blurred image of the Pinwheel Galaxy with his telescope at home, a rare feat for an astrophysicist.

“I’ve always been interested in space,” Wentzel said. “I like the possibilities. It’s the final frontier, to steal from ‘Star Trek‘ a bit. I would always go outside and stargaze as a kid. I just thought there was something beautiful about it.”

Dennis shares some of the same sentiments about the field.

“I love science. I’ve always been curious about the origins of the universe and life.”

Running the observatory open house helps each of them share their love with the community.

“Nothing is better than the look on someone’s face when you tell them something about space they’ve never heard before,” Dennis said. “And then being able to look through a telescope in the middle of St. Louis and see what you just told them is doubly amazing.”

Wentzel agrees.

“I’ve had multiple kids around middle school age who have come to these things and said that they want to be an astronomer, so I feel like it’s good encouragement, and it generates interest.”

After all, that curiosity and amazement is the exact thing that got Wentzel started on his path.

“What took my breath away was that I could get such clarity from an object billions of miles away,” he said. “And I was looking at that object all the way from Earth through this mechanism. That was a really big affirmation that I was pursuing the right degree and that I was making the right choice with going with astrophysics.”

The next Richard D. Schwartz Observatory Open House is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 28. Expect to see Jupiter, Venus, the Pleiades, the Orion Nebula and Mizar. See the 2015 schedule for dates and times for the other open house nights.

Observations last an hour on average. And, as Wentzel stressed, they are always at the mercy of the weather.

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