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Stargazing in the Bernoulliborg

14 March 2023

Saturday 25 February The moon is shining brightly above the Bernoulliborg. On this clear evening, Orion and the small dipper are high in the sky. In light of the national stargazing days, the Blaauw Observatory is open to the public tonight. I am here in the Bernoulliborg, together with around 250 other curious people. The group is diverse: there are many families with young children but also younger and older couples who are interested in this stargazing event.

An inflatable dome that at first glance looks like a bouncy castle is located on the first floor of the Bernoulliborg. Appearances can be deceiving; it is a mobile planetarium. Astronomy student Maria is helping around 20 people to enter the dome via its inflatable entry portal. Once inside, we gather around in a circle and take a seat along the side. Maria takes place behind her laptop in the middle and welcomes everyone. ‘I very much enjoy telling you about our galaxy, but it does require darkness before I start,’ she says enthusiastically. She controls a projector that projects a starry sky onto the dome’s canvas and talks to us about the Milky Way and constellations. A girl shouts in amazement: ‘Is that the lion? Oh, look, a fish!’

‘Imagine; you are becoming a long string of atoms and even those atoms are being pulled further apart. The scientific name for this is “spaghettification”.’

Maria explains that Polaris – also known as the Pole star – is so unique because it is always visible in the starry sky exactly above the Earth’s northernmost point. Centuries ago, it has, therefore, been used to navigate. A woman asks whether the northern lights have anything to do with particles of the Sun. Maria answers that the northern light indeed arises because of small particles of the Sun that travel through the atmosphere. The planetarium show ends with an explanation about a black hole. Maria explains in great detail what happens when such a monster swallows you up. ‘Imagine; you are becoming a long string of atoms and even those atoms are being pulled further apart. The scientific name for this is “spaghettification”.’

The Seven Sisters

In a lecture hall, astronomy student Dion gives a presentation to prepare us for the tour around the Blaauw Observatory. He explains that telescopes can visualize different kinds of wavelengths. High up in space, for example, circles the Chandra X-ray observatory. This telescope can pick up different X-ray waves that a telescope on Earth cannot observe because the radiation is blocked by our atmosphere. Dion shows a professional photograph of a nebula. He already lowers our expectations: ‘You’re not going to see pictures like this one from the internet through the telescope yourself.’ These photos are made with a special camera that is attached to the telescope, which allows it to take the most beautiful colour pictures of nebulas.

However, we will be able to see planets such as Mars and Jupiter but also stars from constellations such as Orion. Dion talks in great detail about the Pleiades, a cluster of seven stars that are very close together in the sky. These stars are also known as the Seven Sisters, named after seven sisters from Greek mythology. Another star that we can admire tonight is Beetlejuice – the brightest star of the Orion constellation. This star is at the point of imploding. When this happens, the star will collapse with extensive force and become a white dwarf. A man wonders how soon this is likely to happen. Dion answers that it can still take 100,000 or even a million years. However, relatively speaking, it is very soon.

Blaauw Observatory

After the introduction, we leave for the top floor, via a spiral staircase, to arrive at the observation terrace. In the cold outdoors, the moon is clearly visible. Someone wonders where they can see the seven stars that were mentioned during the presentation. ‘There, next to the moon,’ a woman points out. The seven stars of the Pleiades are visible as a miniature dipper–albeit with a little imagination. Another woman wonders where she can see Mars. A man points out: ‘The orange one over there, on the top right.’ After pointing out some more constellations, the group continues towards the Blaauw Observatory, taking the final flight of stairs. The observatory consists of a large rotating dome with an open hatch through which the 40-centimetre reflecting telescope can observe light from all over the Universe.

‘We looked through a telescope before, in Croatia. Now that I think of it, it might have been a scam. Those were very beautiful pictures, but it was not such a large telescope.’

Astronomy student Dirk controls the telescope – one of the biggest in the Netherlands. He points out that the telescope is aimed at Mars. The planet is recognisable because one side is coloured white and the other is coloured orange when viewed through the telescope. Each visitor takes their turn to look through the telescope. Next, Dirk places a different ocular in the telescope, with a smaller magnification, to better observe the Pleiades. But then, a big dark cloud appears in the sky, blocking the view of the Seven Sisters. Dirks searches for a new object, rotating the dome in an easterly direction. Unfortunately, there are too many clouds to observe another star. Dirk concludes the evening with some facts about the telescope itself.

A young couple found it a successful evening. ‘We looked through a telescope before, in Croatia. Now that I think of it, it might have been a scam. Those were very beautiful pictures, but it was not such a large telescope.’ They will return another time to take another look through the telescope.

The Blaauw Observatory is regularly open to the public. The public evenings are organized by the Kapteyn Institute (Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Groningen) and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research. Interested? Take a look at the Blaauw Observatory website.

Text and photos: Myrna Kooij

Last modified:14 March 2023 4.40 p.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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