What’s a star party? It’s a chance to see the stars up close—not movie stars, but planets, stars and galaxies twinkling overhead.
Five of us recently attended one of the nightly observing programs at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona. Kitt Peak, located above the Sonoran Desert, is home to the world’s largest collection of optical telescopes. The site is located on the Tohono O’odman Reservation.
We were instructed to arrive at the visitor center by 4:10 p.m. to check in. Chuck, our guide for the evening, welcomed us, and we were served box lunches and watched an introductory program.
Our first activity was to observe the sunset. Our group was small so we took a van to the Mayall four-meter telescope, the site’s largest, to watch from the observation deck. What a tremendous view— both of the 26 observatories on the mountain and of the surrounding area! Because we were a small group, we were able to go inside and watch the observing slot for the telescope being opened. It is opened a couple of hours before the scientists begin observation to allow temperatures inside and out to equalize and the mirror to adjust to the outside temperature.
Next we went back to the visitor center to learn more about the observatory. The Kitt Peak National Observatory is part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), which is operated by a consortium of universities and other institutions in cooperation with the National Science Foundation. Scientists from all over submit proposals for use of observatory telescopes, and a committee allocates viewing time.
Each of us was given a planisphere—or sky chart—and binoculars to use for the evening. After a lesson in how to use our planispheres, we bundled up and stepped outside where Chuck gave us a tour of the night sky. With his tutelage, we could almost see the figures the Greeks and other ancient peoples saw when they named the constellations and could follow the mythical stories in the sky, like that of Cassiopeia, her daughter Andromeda, and rescuer Perseus. Because light from the nearest stars takes more than four years to reach the earth, we are actually looking at the past! The sun and our solar system did not even exist when light left the most distant galaxies we can view through telescopes.
Using a laser pointer to guide us, Chuck pointed out a number of celestial objects: the Coathanger Cluster, Pleiades Star Cluster (known as the Seven Sisters), and M15 and M31 (the Andromeda Galaxy). The “M” objects were catalogued by astronomer Charles Messier in the 1700s. We all agreed that Chuck’s explanation of planispheres was the best we’d heard and even we amateurs could now figure out how to use one.
After warming up inside, we stepped back outside into the observing scope at the visitor center. Flynn, our guide for this part of the program, had selected a number of objects to view through the 20-inch telescope. We viewed Almach (two orbiting stars of different colors), zeroed in on a portion of the Andromeda Galaxy, saw the Trapezium in the Orion Nebula, the planet Uranus and the surface of the moon after it rose. For my daughter, Rebekah, who lives in Baltimore and had never looked through a telescope, it was absolutely amazing to see these distant objects. I had looked at most of these objects through an 8-inch Meade telescope, but seeing it in higher resolution was spectacular.
We drove off the mountain in a line, following Chuck with our headlights off so we wouldn’t disrupt the research in progress. Fortunately none of the many wild animals that make their home in this area ran in front of us.
Attending a program
Kitt Peak offers three daytime tours as well as the nightly observing program. You can also sign up for the advanced observing program. The advanced program allows use of one of the two visitor center observatories after the evening program has ended, plus three meals and a room. The cost of $375 allows two people to share a telescope. Special workshops and programs may also be offered periodically.
Other observatories have evening programs. I’ve attended very different star parties at McDonald Observatory in Texas and Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. You can check tourist directories or one of the Web sites below to locate observatories in the area you will be traveling. Most with evening programs are in the southern and southwestern parts of the country.
To get the most out of your night observation program:
• Make reservations well in advance. Some are sold out weeks before the date.
• Dress warmly. Observatories are often at higher elevations and much of the program is held outside. The telescopes are open to the air so observatories are no warmer than being outside.
• Check the schedule of other activities when planning your visit. Your admission may allow you to arrive early and wander around the grounds. You might be able to take advantage of daytime tours to different observatories or to view the sun. Find out if a meal is included or if food is available.
Attend a star party in your travels. You’ll never look at the night sky in the same way again.
Jaimie Hall is an RVer and author of several RV books. Her Web site is RVHometown.comResearch Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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