When Michael Sibbernsen inherited his grandfather’s small Sears telescope at age 10, his grandfather probably didn’t expect his gift to inspire Sibbernsen to spend his life among the stars.
“The first time I got it out, I pointed it at the brightest object in the sky,” Sibbernsen said. “It was Saturn with its beautiful rings.”
He was hooked. That experience set him toward a career in science. Sibbernsen is the science and technology coordinator at the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Ashland, Neb.
He is also a member of the Omaha Astronomical Society and on the planning committee for the Nebraska Star Party, which celebrates its 20th anniversary when it convenes in the Sand Hills in August.
Wednesday night, Sibbernsen stood in the cold in the parking lot of the museum watching the comet Pan-STARRS during its brief window of visibility. With him were members of the Omaha Astronomical Society and other curious stargazers.
Pan-STARRS is barely visible to the naked eye, but can be seen with binoculars or a telescope on the western horizon. The comet can be seen into April, said Bill Bond, society president for the past three years.
“It isn’t as bright as anticipated,” Bond said.
Wednesday night, clouds and haze on the horizon made it hard to view the comet. The cold breeze made it hard to believe that so many people would stand in the dark to see the comet. But after one look through Sibbernsen’s massive binoculars, the reasons became clear. Billions of reasons.
This is a big year for astronomy. First, a small meteor was photographed exploding over Russia. Then an asteroid passed relatively close to Earth. Now the comet Pan-STARRS is making an appearance. And soon Comet ISON will be visible and has the potential to be the brightest comet visible from earth in hundreds of years.
The comet will be visible beginning in November, Bond said.
On April 20, the museum will host its largest star party of the year to celebrate Astronomy Day. Hundreds of amateur astronomers will attend, toting in everything from simple binoculars to telescopes 30 inches in diameter, able to see deep into space, Sibbernsen said.
The opportunity to look through some of the largest telescopes in the state, at some of the most beautiful sights in the galaxy, is open to the public free of charge.
The celebration of Astronomy Day is just a prelude to the largest astronomical party of the year, the 20th anniversary of the Nebraska Star Party.
The party will take place at Merritt Reservoir’s Snake campground, 30 miles from Valentine, Neb.
“If viewed from space, there’s a big, dark hole free of light pollution in Cherry County. That’s the whole reason we go up there,” said John Johnson, Omaha Astronomical Society outreach coordinator.
Nebraska astronaut Clayton Anderson of Ashland will be the keynote speaker for the event, scheduled for Aug. 4 through 9.
Members of the society have access to several of the club’s loaner telescopes and access to the society’s viewing land near Weeping Water, Neb.
“The loaner program is a great way to check out different types of telescopes before you buy your own,” Bond said.
The society has almost 100 members, meeting the first Friday of each month at the Durham Science Center, Room 169, on the UNO campus.
In Lincoln, the Hyde Memorial Observatory is devoted exclusively to public viewing. Staffed by volunteers from Lincoln’s Prairie Astronomy Club and built with donations, Hyde is open Saturday evenings free of charge. The club’s next meeting is at the observatory at 7:30 p.m. March 26.
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