17th Jul, 2010

Look! Up in the sky!

About the time that Halley’s Comet was entering our collective imagination—say, about 1985—I was hit by the astronomy bug. I joined a local astronomy club, the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association and bought my first telescope. I also got into astrophotography in a pretty big way, spending countless hours under the stars, whether it was July or December. I suppose my father figured there were a lot worse things that I teenager could be doing at 1 in the morning.

Sometime after college, my participation in astronomy-related events waned. I kept my telescopes, but they gathered a lot of dust in the garage and basement. Eventually, I donated my larger one to the Olmsted Falls high school science department.

But all along, I looked forward to the day when my kids were old enough to be interested in the nighttime sky. Josh has shown interest on and off over the years, and even though Matthew is a tad too young, he at least “gets it” when we look at the moon in our driveway once or twice per year.
Tonight, I took the boys to the CAA’s monthly open house/star party at Letha House Park, part of the Medina County Park District. While the park may seem to be way out of the way, that’s the point. A lot of what astronomy enthusiasts look at are faint galaxies, nebulas, star clusters, etc. And many of those objects—not to mention the beautiful summertime Milky Way—are drowned out by city lights. So the club began a relationship with this park more than 20 years ago, as its country outpost. About ten years ago, the long-held dream of building a small observatory building at the park became a reality.

The public “star parties” that CAA holds are basically evenings where many members bring out their instruments—refractors, reflectors, enormous binoculars, etc.—and share the views with the general public (many other clubs hold star parties, too). It’s a fun and educational experience. I used to love doing it years ago, to help educate the public. It’s interesting being on the other side of things now, bringing my own kids and letting them learn all the things I’ve forgotten about the constellations and the “faint fuzzies” up in the nighttime sky.

Tonight, we only saw a few things—the first quarter moon (at upper left in the top photo), Venus (barely visible at upper right in the top photo, see the arrow) and Saturn, really. The craters on the moon’s terminator (the line between night and day, where shadows are longest) were stunning, and Saturn’s rings and two of its moons were easily visible, especially in the largest scope. Then clouds quickly moved in and it was sprinkling, causing most everyone to pack up their expensive optics.

Many of the club members bring little stepstools, and/or they will rotate the eyepieces on their telescopes downward for kid-optimized viewing. It’s a really great experience for children; they get so much out of it, even if you only come for a quick half hour after darkness sets in. And who knows, you might light a spark in them that brings out a passion for science in school.

For a listing of upcoming CAA events, click here.

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