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Where to go when you want to see stars—and planets, nebulas, galaxies…

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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.

Another historic, public-friendly facility can be found atop Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. That’s where Percival Lowell—wealthy Bostonian, self-taught astronomer, and avowed Martian chaser—built a world-class observing complex in the 1880s. In recent years Lowell Observatory has enjoyed a resurgence of professional prestige and public interest, which culminated in 1994 with a centennial celebration and the unveiling of a new visitors’ center. Today you can follow in Lowell’s storied footsteps at least one night per week in winter, up to six in summer. For a $3.50 admission fee (kids: $1.50), you’ll get a preview of the current sky sights, followed by observing with either a 24-inch refractor or a 16-inch compound reflector. Daytime visitors can enjoy a quick peek at the sun (daily at 12:30 p.m.) or stroll down the Pluto Walk to see the 13-inch photographic telescope that Clyde Tombaugh used in 1930 to discover distant Pluto.

If time permits, head 230 miles south to Tucson, the current mecca of American astronomy. There you’ll find the headquarters of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories and the University of Arizona’s Flandrau Planetarium and Steward Observatory. An hour’s drive to the southwest brings you to the 6,875-foot summit of Kitt Peak and face to face with the most impressive collection of professional telescopes in North America.

In the past, NOAO offered public viewing on Kitt Peak only once a month, in a dome adjacent to its visitors’ center. But a new, expanded program lets you reserve the night you want in advance, and it’s limited to just 20 participants. After arriving at the summit before sunset, pre-registered guests are offered a light meal and an orientation lecture. The staff provides top-quality binoculars for everyone, and there’s plenty of time for eyeballing the heavens through a 16-inch compound reflector. Cost is the only catch: $35 for adults, $25 for kids, or $100 for a family of four. For $250 each, two diehard observers can take over the telescope for an entire night, recording their finds with state-of-the-art electronic cameras and even dining with visiting astronomers (room and board cost an additional $55 per person).

 

Off the Beaten Track

Astronomical opportunities are not always as obvious as a Griffith or Kitt Peak observatory. In fact, the very best places to cruise the cosmos are remote locations with sparse populations. One such gem is Goldendale Observatory in south-central Washington. In the early 1970s, four Vancouver men built a 24-inch reflector from scratch and donated it to the small city of Goldendale. Washington’s State Parks and Recreation Commission took over the facility in 1980, and today it exists solely for public use. The big scope is augmented by more than a dozen portable and permanently mounted companions of various sizes. Stephen Stout has been the sole staffer there for nearly 19 years. He provides lectures and telescopic viewing five nights a week from April through September and only on Saturdays during other months. Despite being hard to find, Goldendale hosts up to 200 visitors a night and 30,000 to 40,000 a year, many of them children from the region’s schools. Continued success has Stout dreaming of a $3 million renovation, but putting eyeball to eyepiece will always be part of the Goldendale experience. “I never want to take away the direct viewing through the telescope,” he says.

Two other well-hidden retreats are found in the Southwest. Eleven years ago Philip Mahon took a huge gamble: He bought 195 acres of remote, forest-rimmed land in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, built an observing compound with seven cozy cottages, and held his breath. Today the Star Hill Inn, which he operates with wife Rae Ann Kumelos-Mahon, is thriving. Each year, the inn hosts roughly 800 visitors, who come from as far away as Singapore to revel in the dark skies. One couple liked the place so much that they recently held their wedding there. An overnight stay costs as little as $80 for a single or $90 for a double, though there’s a two-night minimum. No meals are served, but all the cottages are equipped with kitchens. “That was one of my best decisions,” Mahon says. “Observers who stay up all night don’t want someone telling them when to eat.” Some guests bring their own gear, but most choose from a small arsenal of rental telescopes.

Another good choice for an astronomical sleepover is Skywatcher’s Inn in Benson, Arizona, about 50 miles southeast of Tucson. Eduardo Vega had already set up his Vega-Bray Observatory when his wife Patricia decided to add the inn a few years ago. Guests share common living, dining, and entertainment rooms, along with three kitchen units. Rates start at $89 per room, but you might want to splurge. As recent guest Ed Ting notes, “I expected a simple rustic retreat. Boy, was I wrong! Within minutes I found myself happily installed in the Egyptian room, complete with marble jacuzzi, satellite TV, and walk-in marble shower.” Vega did not skimp on the astronomical amenities either. Vega-Bray offers a computer-controlled 20-inch telescope, seven others with apertures from six to 14 inches, a small planetarium, a radio telescope, and a photographic darkroom. Equipment fees range from $55 for the smaller scopes to $150 for an entire night with the 20-inch and the services of an imaging expert or professional astronomer. However, Skywatchers Inn, like Star Hill, is not just for the high-end astrophile. Both offer guided sky tours for novice observers and families.

 

Observing Power to the People

As appealing as such retreats might seem, most would-be observers are stuck in the city and forced to make out a few stars through bright skyglow. But urban dwellers sometimes have the advantage of enthusiastic amateur astronomers who set up telescopes in prominent downtown areas. The most famous of these roving bands, the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, made their debut in 1967. Legend has it that two prepubescent pupils of telescope-making guru John Dobson were denied membership in the local astronomy club. In protest, Dobson helped Bruce Sams and Jeff Roloff set up their homemade scopes on the corner of Jackson and Broderick streets. Thirty-two years later both the sidewalkers and Dobson (now 87) are still going strong. You can find them on the Friday or Saturday night nearest the first-quarter moon. These days they usually hang out at the corners of 24th and Noe, 24th and Sanchez, or 9th and Irving. “Our only reason for being is to show the sky to people,” Dobson says.

Another such group, the Toronto Sidewalk Astronomers, can be found encamped along Lake Ontario on many Monday nights. Chris Burns admits that he and five friends like to go out and “bug people to look through our telescopes.” The Toronto group, which started in 1992, tries to have at least three members out along the shore on any given night. Two of them operate the telescopes and one serves as “designated theorist” to answer questions. As befits such informal gatherings, the scopes have comical names like Rocky and Bullwinkle. Most of TSA’s members are graduate students at the University of Toronto, whose astronomy department offers free public stargazing on the first and third Thursdays of each month. The staff uses an eight-inch refractor atop Burton Tower on the St. George campus.

Sidewalk astronomers love to treat unsuspecting passersby to views of the moon and planets. “We pick mostly beaches,” says Burns, “because they’re prime dog walking spots.” Barry Hirrell, one of the San Francisco group’s members, adds, “We put our telescopes in places that you’d most likely kick them over.” But tracking down a sidewalk troupe’s whereabouts can be tricky—call ahead before setting out. The same advice holds for rooting out observing activities in any locality, which often go unadvertised, and for this task Internet searches can prove invaluable. One online directory, maintained by my employer, Sky & Telescope magazine, boasts listings for more than 2,000 planetariums, observatories, and astronomy clubs throughout North America and Europe (www.skypub.com/resources/directory/directory.html).

Wherever you manage to find one, a star party will inspire you to appreciate the night sky in a new way. Dobson’s philosophy is simple: “We amateurs have a responsibility to show others what our universe looks like through a telescope.” And while the legions of amateurs are far short of satisfying his mantra—“A telescope in every driveway, on every sidewalk”—they stand ready to offer satisfying glimpses of the cosmic beyond.

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