Country Stars

As I wrote about before, our attempt to study the stars near our home in the city was a little disappointing. However, I was excited to discover that our local astronomy club was holding their annual "Star Party" only a few days later.

I had never been to a "Star Party", or even heard of one before. This particular event was a week-long stargazing marathon. The venue for the party was one of the club's dark-sky locations, well away from the city lights. The astronomy club's website stated that "Beginner astronomers" were welcome and they would have their twenty-four inch telescope set up for visitors to look through. It sounded perfect!

We invited another homeschooling family (Casablanca) to join us and made plans to head out one night after work. It was a two hour drive just to get there, and with the Atlanta traffic reaching its peak about the time we were able to leave, there was no way we could get there before dark. But hey, it's stargazing, it's supposed to be dark, right? So, we decided to wait out the traffic and have dinner in the city before we left.

"Of course, you can trust us with your $40K telescope!"

 

"Look! We're starfish! Get it?"

Finally, with our bellies full and the traffic cleared out, we were off. At some point along the two hour drive, our friends texted us, asking if we had read the "Star Party Etiquette" document they found on the website. It contained rules like "arrive before dark" and "no white light after sunset". My visions of super-friendly astronomers welcoming us to their party were rapidly being replaced by images of angry astronomers telling us where to stick our headlights.

The closer we got to our destination the more nervous we became about how exactly we were going join this Star Party without everyone there hating us. We turned off our headlights once we made our final turn onto the road where the venue was supposed to be located, trying to avoid inadvertently blinding all the dark-adapted party-goers. When they said the party was at a dark-sky location, they weren't kidding. With only our running lights to guide us, we crept along the road, looking for the entrance in the darkness.

Our question of "How to approach the observing site without disturbing everyone?" was answered for us. You see: astronomers are very serious about maintaining their dark-sky conditions and they know all about people like us white-light-blasting-late-comers. They were ready for us. When we finally arrived at our destination, we were greeted by a closed and securely locked gate, bearing a sign that read

Gate closed: Sunset to Sunrise

Everything around was dark and silent. I think even the crickets stopped chirping when we pulled up.

Needless to say, I felt horrible about dragging everyone out there to the middle of pitch-black-nowhere only to be locked out of the event. And what now? Do we park the cars outside the gate and try to find the "party" on foot? But as my slightly annoyed better-half pointed out:

What? Are we really going to walk who-knows-how-far into the pitch-black darkness with four kids and no idea where we are going? ... And then we are going to grope our way in the pitch-black darkness onto a field full of strangers, who are already annoyed that we are arriving late, and then try to find a place to sit amongst them? ... And then we are going to ask if we can look through their telescope? No, we are not.

We decided to stay where we were for a while and see what we could see. We pulled off to the side of the road, right there in front of the locked down "star gate". We spread out our blankets and lay down in the back of our pickup truck. Even though our Star Party and telescope plans were a bust, the night sky itself did not disappoint. Our six stars from a few nights before were joined by thousands of others. It was truly awe-inspiring. Although, I'm fairly certain we didn't need to drive two hours each way to do it.

City Stars

We began studying the night sky in our astronomy class this year. We learned how to read a star map. We focused on where in the sky to look for the Big and Little Dippers at this time of year in our location, and how to use them to find the North Star. We stayed up past bedtime and headed out to the open field in the park across the street. We looked up and saw... three stars. Three.

Needless to say, city stargazing was a little underwhelming. We live about eight miles south of a very bright city and about two miles north of a very bright international airport. We also live on a well lit street with a well lit park across the street. What our lesson lacked in actual stars was made up for in a very poignant lesson on "light pollution".

The three stars we could see from the park were lone bright stars, but I had absolutely no idea which stars they were. All the stars around them were drowned out by ambient light. The Dippers were nowhere to be found either; therefore using them to find Polaris was out of the question. I was thankful to have downloaded a few stargazing apps onto my iPhone, so that I could at least identify these few visible stars for the boys: Vega, Deneb and Altair.

Michael had fun pointing my phone around the night sky, watching different graphics of the unseen stars that were supposedly there flash across the screen. However, it wasn't long before the boys had lost interest in our three stars and were off playing, giddy at the idea of being out past bedtime, in the park, in the dark. Meanwhile, I was on my back on the grass with my phone in the air, trying to gather all the information I could about the few stars we could see.

After returning to the house, we decided to try our slightly darker, albeit tree-lined, backyard as a stargazing location. There, peeking around the side of the house, was an actual group of stars, together, trying to form something. Thanks to her bright stars, Cassiopeia could be seen from our backyard. Wow! An honest-to-goodness constellation! How exciting!

Hello, Cassie! Thanks for showing up.

In class the next day, I asked the boys what they had observed the night before? Michael started rattling off all the constellations he had "seen":

Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Polaris, the Dragon, the King...

At first, King and I were perplexed. How did we miss seeing all those constellations? Then I remembered giving Mike my phone to use. 

No, Michael, I mean real stars... in the sky... that you saw with your own eyes.... not just on the phone.

Oh... uh... then, I don't know.

We ended up having a good discussion about the stars we did see and the boys sketched their observations in their science copybooks.

Thankfully, an opportunity for celestial-redemption lay just around the corner. I had planned another outing for the upcoming weekend: we would travel to a "dark-sky" location well away from the star-masking glow of the big city lights.  

Stay tuned...