Though most students have their heads buried in books studying for midterms, this particular exam week affords them an opportunity to look to the stars.
Tonight, provided the sky is clear, the observatory at Peyton Hall will host the first in a series of informal open houses.
They will be open to the general public, said Dave Goldberg GS, who coordinates the observatory sessions. Graduate students will be on hand to answer questions and help visitors use the telescopes – a nine-inch refractor and a six-inch reflector.
Goldberg stressed the informal aspect of the sessions, noting that there are no scheduled speakers.
"I think this is something that students would appreciate," Peter Mastromarino '99 said. "I use the telescope on occasion, and when I offer to show it to people, they always get interested."
Peyton Hall is scheduled to host the open houses from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month. However, the inaugural event planned for last Wednesday night was postponed due to cloudy skies.
"Hopefully we'll be able to do it next week," Goldberg said Thursday. "The weather's kind of unpredictable." A cloudy sky tonight would push the date of the first open house into April.
If skies are clear tonight, observers can expect to see Saturn, the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades and several Messier objects, Goldberg said.
Clouds are not the only possible obstacle to viewing the cosmos from Peyton. Fine Hall blocks a portion of the sky, Goldberg said, adding that the building is more of a problem for viewing planets because Fine obscures a western segment of the ecliptic – the path planets follow across the sky.
Goldberg noted that, due to this situation, Mars will probably not be visible at tonight's viewing. The red planet will be setting during observing hours tonight, and because it sets in the west – as do all other planets in addition to the sun, moon and stars – Fine Hall will block it from view.
Goldberg also expressed concern that the new football stadium, once completed, will add more light to the area surrounding Peyton.
The idea for regularly scheduled open houses arose among graduate students who remembered similar events happening occasionally in the past.
"We used to (open Peyton to the public) about once a semester if there was a big astronomical event," Goldberg said.
He specifically recalled a night last year when people came to see both the Hale-Bopp comet and a lunar eclipse. "We had about 400 people – a record," he said.
Those looking for updates on the open houses can check the Web site http://www.astro.princeton.edu/openhouse.html. Information on whether or not the weather will permit viewing is posted a few hours before each event.