A balmy Friday evening in Boston offers endless possibilities for entertainment, but tonight a score of people have chosen to gather downtown, atop a dark, sparse parking garage. Suddenly the door of a windowless rooftop building cracks open, revealing the dull glow of red lights. Out pops a head. “Does anyone want to come inside?” Ron Dantowitz chirps, and a happy chorus of yeas greets him in reply. “That’s the right answer,” Dantowitz says, and so begins another night’s stargazing at the Boston Museum of Science’s Gilliland Observatory.
It’s a scene repeated hundreds of times across North America on summer weekends and only a little less frequently in the depths of winter. To astronomers, sharing the beauty of the night sky with others is a no-brainer. Dantowitz and observing sidekick Larry Krozel are show-and-tell veterans, and on this planet-free night they manage to make even a solitary star come alive by showing off its rainbow spectrum. “Astronomy is an easy sell,” Dantowitz says. “It’s always great to have someone come up to the eyepiece and gasp, ‘That’s not real, is it?’ ”
Finding a skyward-pointing telescope to look through is easier than you might think. There’s no need to trek off to some distant mountaintop in search of one—besides, professional observatories aren’t generally open to the public. Instead, seek out a local planetarium or the astronomy department of a nearby university. Most offer public stargazing nights at least once a month. Better yet, get in touch with one of the hundreds of amateur astronomy clubs scattered around the continent. Not only will their evening “star parties” give you a satisfying eyeful, but the seasoned aficionados there can help you decide on a telescope of your own.
Star party culture is growing because, ironically, we are less and less able to appreciate the night sky. City dwellers kissed the Milky Way goodbye decades ago. Even in once-pristine rural outposts, the night’s cosmic tapestry has been bleached of its splendor by the ubiquitous glare of strip malls and security lights. “Imagine children growing up without being allowed to see trees or birds,” laments Daniel W. E. Green, an astronomer at the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “How is this any different from preventing our children from seeing the stars?”
Astronomy in the City
Showing children—and adults—the stars is a mission many institutions have embraced. The undisputed king of the public venues is Griffith Observatory, perched on Mount Hollywood in the heart of Los Angeles. Since Griffith opened in 1935, more than five million people have looked through its venerable 12-inch-diameter Zeiss refractor. (A refractor employs lenses to focus stellar light, as opposed to mirrors or combinations of mirrors and lenses in, respectively, reflectors or catadioptric telescopes. See “Choose Your Weapon,” opposite.) It’s not unusual for 150 visitors to queue up for a quick peek through the scope’s impressive 16-foot-long tube. Observing assistant Bob Spellman says the Zeiss is rarely turned on anything other than the moon or planets, which are perennial crowd favorites. After getting moonstruck, you can take in the breathtaking cityscape below or wander through Griffith’s astronomical displays. Take a seat under the 75-foot planetarium dome and you’ll be transported to a Los Angeles that hasn’t existed for a century, with brilliant stars strewn across a pitch-black plaster sky.
Another facility offering full-service astronomy is the Boston Museum of Science and Charles Hayden Planetarium. The recently renovated planetarium seats 240, and its daily shows cost $7.50 (kids: $5.50). In 1995, benefactor Wendy Kistler funded a new public observatory to honor her father-in-law, an avid skygazer. Under the dome atop the museum’s parking garage are “Abbott” and “Costello,” a sleek seven-inch refractor and a stubby 12-inch catadioptric scope. But the real star is the computerized $16,000 mount that moves them both. Its sophisticated electronics can track almost anything—even fast-moving satellites, as evidenced by Dantowitz’s remarkably detailed snapshots of Mir, the space shuttle, and other spacecraft cruising hundreds of miles over Boston. Gilliland’s smallish dome gives the Friday night sessions an intimate one-on-oneness, and guests often linger for extra views through the eyepiece. Sun watching sessions, during which the telescopes are fitted with solar filters, are held Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Such pairings of planetariums and public stargazing are common across North America. Usually a multimedia “What’s up?” presentation inside precedes the telescope time under the stars. At Bishop Planetarium, part of the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, the package deal costs just $3 (kids: $1.50), or you can head right for the telescopes for $1. Director George Fleenor says the evening program is more popular in cooler weather, when he can count on seeing a few “regulars” visiting month after month. Amateur astronomers from the Bradenton area help run the observatory’s eight- and six-inch refractors on Friday and Saturday evenings. The scopes are trained on the sun each Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. And when the clouds roll in, you can always check out Snooty and Mo at the museum’s Parker Manatee Aquarium.
Especially in a city setting, big telescopes are big draws. For example, in Charlottesville, Virginia, the University of Virginia’s Leander McCormick Observatory boasts a telescope with a 26-inch lens—one of the world’s 10 largest refractors. The observatory’s public viewings routinely draw capacity crowds of 300. “We are overwhelmed,” says university astronomer Philip Ianna, who has recently doubled the number of observing nights and enlisted volunteers from the Charlottesville Astronomical Society. The public now comes on the first and third Fridays each month, with the second and fourth Fridays reserved for prearranged groups. McCormick’s ivy-covered dome is steeped in history: Thomas Jefferson had included an observatory in his plans for the university (on Mount Jefferson, at the campus’ edge), though it was not completed until 1885. By tradition, all members of the astronomy department—even tenured theoreticians—assist with the public programs.