Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The wonders of the public astronomy event

There’s something I’ve always enjoyed about sidewalk astronomy.

Seeing people of all ages look through a telescope for the first time in their lives and wonder at the awesomeness of the universe, whether it’s the Orion Nebula, a crescent Venus, the moon in any phase and – the piece de resistance – the planet Saturn, makes all the time and effort to set up my telescope worthwhile.

As a member of the Local Group of Deep Sky Observers in Manatee County, Fla., I’ve gone out to several events, met some wonderful fellow amateur astronomers and talked up science to the general public. It’s fun, it gets me out of the house and it shows that the universe still holds an appeal to people.

On Saturday night, March 7, 2009, I introduced some people to the wonder of M42, the Orion Nebula. This bright cloud of gas, dust and newly formed stars is a showpiece object for public astronomy events, and people are amazed at the cloud surrounding the four visible stars of the Trapezium.

Many people are amazed to learn that Venus shows phases like the moon, and that there really is nothing to see on the planet’s surface since it is shrouded in clouds. Space probes have landed there and sent back pictures.

Point a telescope at the moon, and things really take off. Here are mountains, craters and shadows that make people think you’ve taped a picture over your telescope. Kids especially are thrilled by the moon. To them, the famous Apollo landings of 1969-1972 are ancient history, and their curiosity is always so encouraging.

As for Saturn, well, then you’re really giving the people a show. Saturn’s rings are nearly edge-on, and the planet’s moons, visible in the telescope, are showing off the wonders of orbital mechanics. Their shadows are even visible when they’re passing in front of the planet.

A recent story in The New York Times told how people have very little sense of the sky since in places like New York City there is so much light being blasted into the heavens at night, you can’t see more than a few bright stars and maybe a planet. That’s a shame because the universe puts on the best show in, well, the universe, and it’s free.

One night at a public event, I told someone, “Amateur astronomers are the ultimate optimists, because we’re always looking up.” Sure, the stock market is a vast destroyer of wealth, there’s a ton of religious violence and hatred in the world, and Tallahassee is literally a parliament of whores, but there’s always the night sky, and the planets, nebulae, star clusters and galaxies that somehow make all these earthly concerns so irrelevant.

In times like these, maybe looking up is all we can do.


March 10, 2009 - Posted by | Observations with Vinny | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. When we took a driving trip to Cooperstown last summer I was almost shocked at how brilliant the night sky was there. It was a show I never see in or around New York City. Even though I may not comment on every story – I do read every one. The newspaper story recently posted was particularly an engrossing read and showed your talent. Hope all is well with you. It’s dark and raining here today.

    Comment by Diana-NYC | March 11, 2009 | Reply

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