The night sky glitters, lights skip and dance, and those down below gaze and wonder. They watch closely and follow the show, connecting the dots, plotting their course….
When most of us look up at the blanket of blue sky we see twinkles of light, a sliver of moon, and – if by chance we’re looking through binoculars – we may see something else, a passing of another planet, Mars perhaps. And on those nights sky gazers get a glimpse of the environment beyond the night sky. Realizing that the earth is but one of many planets in the solar system is a concept that most students learn in school and one that many adults do not truly grasp until they stumble out into a dark, clear night and look up at the sky. At some point you realize that the sky, albeit a beautiful canvas, is a small part of a much larger environment in which planets swirl at breath-taking speeds in an oxygen-free sphere.
“We have a very rich astronomical heritage that people forget in modern times,” says Jim Beaber, astronomy resource specialist for the Jefferson County Schools Planetarium. His goal, he says, is to remind them of its influence and ongoing significance. The Planetarium, which has been operational for the last 40 years, offers 14 programs such as “The Night Sky” and “The Sky Tonight” that touch on the influence of the solar system.
In an attempt to get a better perspective on the solar system I took a trip to the Gates Planetarium in Denver with my husband, sat back and realized how much there is to explore, and see. New technology enables laypeople, those who may recognize the names of Saturn, Pluto, and Uranus from schoolbooks, to see picture-perfect images of passing planets. And as they swirled by, we began to grasp how vast the solar system is. And how small a part we have in it.
As the lights dimmed, audience members rocked back in their seats leaning their heads back to get a full view of the ceiling, which reveals a journey through space. The 20-minute show is a perfect bite-size introduction to the world of star gazing, which appeals to a greater number of people – men and women of all ages – who seek their own experiences in space.
A Romance with the Stars
Stargazing has an inextricable link to romance. It’s got all the essential components: mystery, chase and ultimate discovery.
An independent hobby, stargazing is an activity that is easily shared by couples, families, and friends and an increasing number of people host star parties or gather to experience events together. There are annual conventions, monthly seminars, and sporadic parties and get-togethers for local stargazers. Planetariums and universities are the best way to meet like-minded stargazers, many of whom say that the best weather conditions for stargazing are cold, dark nights when – across the Front Range – clear skies can be viewed by the naked eye.
“Stargazing is an intensely relaxing hobby,” says Carolyn Collins Petersen, a science writer and author who guest lectures and hosts star parties. “Even though some people find it intimidating at first it’s nothing more complex than looking up at the stars and exploring.”
In truth nothing could be simpler than gazing at the open sky though some choose binoculars for a clearer view or telescopes of varying strengths. But many professionals say that a good set of eyes and a star chart or planisphere is all that you need to get started.
“You can point your way to other places, and you’ll find people who are more than happy to help you,” says Petersen, who launched a website (www.thespacewriter.com) for stargazers in the ’90s. The website offers its visitors a tour of the stars and planets with articles and other related links. “It [stargazing] is infectious, you really get hooked.”
At the age of four – possibly five – Collins Petersen was hooked when she heard about Sputnik being launched into orbit. “I thought ‘orbit’ was a cool word. It was the first time I really looked up and realized there was something up there.”
But it wasn’t the last. Collins Petersen, who moved to Boston from Colorado for a job at SkyWatchMagazine and currently works with her husband to produce astronomy materials for planetariums and science centers, emphasizes the ease of stargazing across the Front Range. “You just have to find the night sky…the patterns. It’s just like looking at a road map of Boulder,” she says. “You just need to know where the streets are and what intersects it.”
Indeed, before setting off for a drive you check maps to gauge distance or print out directions online. For stargazers the same is true. But unlike the congestion of city streets, stars and planets are connected by a web devoid of traffic, aloft from the hustle and bustle of earthly concerns; one of its many draws. And the map you’d print out would be a planisphere (available at www.skyandtelescope.com) to chart your course.
Robert Morris, Astronomy Educator for the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, sees a steady influx of people who are interested in stargazing and attributes the local draw to Colorado’s dark skies. “It doesn’t take much effort to drive up into the mountains and see a sky full of stars,” he says. Longmont is one of his favorite spots though “anywhere away from the cities is actually a good spot,” he adds.
Similar to the enticement of a new town, stargazers approach the heavens with a quest for knowledge, escape, or perspective.
“As I stargaze I often wonder what it would be like to be on a spaceship floating past a distant planet or through a nebula,” says Collins Petersen who frequently visited Golden Gate Park, Brainard Lake and Rocky Mountain National Park.
From most gauges, stargazing draws an increasing number of men and women of all ages and backgrounds. “Trying to find out how many people are stargazing is kind of like trying to herd amoebas,” says Collins Petersen. “For a long time people thought stargazing was a ‘guy’ thing, [but] it’s not. I’ve lectured at star parties where ladies are setting up their scopes next to the guys, the 6-year-olds are out there having as much fun as the 60-year-olds, and everybody’s a geek and loving it.”
And while time in life may differ, many stargazers say the realization that there is another world available to them is both invigorating as well as relaxing. It provides them with endless educational opportunities, a venue for escape, and for perspective.
Across the Front Range there are ample opportunities for stargazing since high elevations and the black night sky are a combination for stargazing success. And while binoculars are helpful, many stargazers simply employ their own eyes to steer the cosmos. For those who seek a more powerful view, planetariums offer public events.
“The public has always turned up in large numbers to our weekly telescope viewings,” says Morris. “And whenever there is a special event, such as the Mars close approach or lunar eclipse, we end up with a full house.”
Historically there was an enormous leap between novice stargazers, who wait for clear nights and trounces off, binoculars in hand to watch a show of lights. But that gap is closing, says Collins Petersen. Professionals are enlisting the help of novice stargazers to track the movement of comets, asteroids, or gravitational listing, she says. “Some [novices] have better equipment than the professionals.”
Denver Museum of Nature & Science, 2001 Colorado Boulevard, Denver; www.dmns.org/planetarium
- Chamberlin Observatory, 2930 E. Warren Avenue, on the University of Denver campus. www.denverastrosociety.org or call 303-281-9052
- K.J. Jarigese teaches astronomy on four campuses of Front Range Community College and often organizes telescope viewings at the Pawnee National Grasslands. E-mail him for information: email@example.com.
- Fiske Planetarium on the University of Colorado campus, Boulder, at 303-492-5001; www.colorado.edu/fiske, check website for public viewing times and the Sommers-Bausch Observatory on the CU campus;http://lyra.colorado.edu/sbo/
- The Space Writer; www.thespacewriter.com/blog.html
- Jefferson County Schools Planetarium; 1829 Denver West Drive, Golden, 80401, 303-982-7278;http://jeffcoweb.jeffco.k12.co.us/isu/science/planet/
- Black Canyon at Gunnison National Park is treated to telescope viewing by amateur astronomy groups from Montrose. Contact the park in the summer for details: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, 102 Elk Creek, Gunnison, 81230;www.nps.gov/blca
- American Astronomical Society; www.aas.org
- International Planetarium Society; www.ips-planetarium.org
- North American Meteor Network; www.namnmeteors.org
- Rocky Mountain Mars Society; http://chapters.marssociety.org/usa/co/
Local Amateur Astronomical Societies:
- Arkansas Valley Astronomical Society (Buena Vista); www.fourteenernet.com/avas/
- Aurora Astronomical Association; http://a_cubed.tripod.com/
- Black Canyon Astronomical Society (Montrose); www.emerald-faeries.net/Astronomy/Astronomy.htm
- Cheyenne Astronomical Society; http://home.bresnan.net/~curranm/
- Colorado Springs Astronomical Society; www.rmss.org
- Denver Astronomical Society; www.denverastrosociety.org
- International Association for Astronomical Studies (Denver); www.iaas.org
- Laramie Astronomical Society and Space Observers; www.lariat.org/LASSO
- Longmont Astronomical Society; http://laps.fsl.noaa.gov/cgi/las.cgi
- Mountain Astronomical Research Section of the Astronomical League;www.astroleague.org/al/regional/mars.html
- Northern Colorado Astronomical Society (Fort Collins); http://ncastro.org/
- Rocky Mountain Planetarium Society; www.rmpadomes.org
- Western Colorado Astronomy Club (Grand Junction); www.coloradowestastronomy.org