UNT Astronomy invites North Texansto public star parties.
By Emily Hopkins
Denton Live July-Dec 2012
Christi Tyler, her husband and three boys step carefully in the dark, inching their way toward the telescopes aimed at the night sky above Denton. Sirius, the Dog Star, shines the brightest above them. Mars radiates warm red light while the stars of the Orion constellation give off a comforting blue glow. Follow the Little Dipper out to the end of its handle and there sits Polaris, the North Star, surprisingly dim in the sky.
Inside the telescope hut, Christi’s boys get their turn first at the Celestron telescope. Her youngest son bends into the eyepiece. His eyes adjust to the small circular lens and he stares at the moon. It gives off a warm glow, but that’s just the red filter, used to minimize its brightness. Every curve along the rim of the moon’s craters is distinct. To the left, he notices a particularly deep crater, like a monstrous round hole in a block of Swiss cheese. Excited, he pulls away and starts describing the scene to his brothers. As they shuffle along in the cold night, he’s excitedly telling them, It looks like cheese! It’s all yellow!
On the first Saturday of each month, the University of North Texas opens the chain-link gates at its Rafes Urban Astronomy Center for a Star Party. Thirty minutes after sunset – clear sky permitting – scores of families, couples and college students arrive and settle in at the outdoor amphitheater, waiting for the two observatories and four telescope huts to open. A warm red light spills out into the night from the open observatory domes. People stare at the glowing constellations, nebulas and planets above as students introduce that night’s sky. During the week, UNT students attend astronomy laboratories here, but these once-a-month parties are meant to share the wonder of the night sky with a new generation. Eight Celestron telescopes ensure everyone gets a close-up view. “I would like them to have that eureka moment when they first look through that telescope and they go, Wow!” says Ron DiIulio, director of UNT’s astronomy laboratory, the largest hands-on lab of any U.S. university.
Ron – best known as the Starman for his shows at UNT’s Sky Theater planetarium – started the monthly Star Party on Saturdays as part of an outreach program, sharing sights not often visible in the city because of ground lighting. The UNT-owned and operated site, which is less than 5 miles out of Denton tucked away amid country fields, puts professionalquality telescopes ($5,000 Celestron C8s and $6,500 C14s with positioning systems and astrophotography cameras) in the hands of students and visitors. About 100 people attend each party, with astronomy students leading the show. “Astronomy is the only science that, for all practical purposes, just has to be seen,” says Ron. Looking at pretty pictures in a book just isn’t enough. “You’ve just got to get out there and experience it,” he says.
The Starman’s new initiative (for Friday nights only) is to lure private groups into the Sky Theater on campus for a documentary and tour of exhibits, including a model of Galileo’s telescope and pieces of meteorites that have fallen on Texas. Then everyone heads out to the Rafes Urban Astronomy Center as the sun starts setting. Groups camp out beneath the stars overnight and use the astronomy equipment for hands-on learning, leaving Saturday morning. “You know it’s dark, but not so far out there that it’s scary,” notes Ron. (No snakes or ticks either.)
Already many alternative schools in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, such as a home school co-op in Farmersville and a First Baptist Christian school, advertise the monthly Star Party to their students and families. Children learn about the eight planets in our solar system and major stars of our galaxy such as Polaris, Sirius and Regulus. When they come to Rafes, they see first hand objects their teachers have painstakingly tried to describe. There is always a rush of interest, says Ron, after a meteor shower or during an eclipse of the moon.
One evening this past spring, Julie Amendez brought her two children Jordan, 10, and Caleb, 12, to their first Star Party. The sky was dark, empty of artificial light polluting the view. The night stars and bright gibbous moon, its form waning each night, illuminated the dark. It was chilly, but people crowded together on the wooden benches of the outdoor amphitheater for warmth. Others threw blankets on the ground, holding warm thermoses and flashlights in hand. Children laughed and played nearby, waiting for the telescope huts and observatory domes to open. There was a rush when the domes opened. Some waited for the two big domes, with their promise of a view of Mars, while others headed back to the telescope huts where Betelgeuse, the four moons of Jupiter, and star groupings could be seen.
In the sky, visible to the naked eye, were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Through the telescopes, Julie’s family could see planetary environments in great detail. Orion (sometimes called The Hunter because of the shape its stars form) and the craters on the moon delighted the kids, but Caleb especially liked the warm earth-colored stripes on Jupiter. “It opens up a whole new world,” says Julie.
As the family worked its way back around to the domes, the line slowly grew shorter. Caleb and Jordon, wrapped in fleece blankets, stood close to their mom, waiting to reach the entranceway to the large Celestron telescope. As they walked inside the circular building, they noticed a large telescope with a stepladder set up to reach the eyepiece. On the wall, a poster describing the characteristics of Mars and its location in the night sky caught Caleb’s eye. He surveyed the poster until it was his turn to climb the ladder and focused through the gigantic telescope pointed at Mars. His eyes widened and his mouth formed a lighthearted smile as he gazed at the warm red ball of light surrounded by black sky. He couldn’t stop staring, in fact.
Which is precisely what Ron, the Starman, wanted all along: “It’s about making them think beyond our own little Earth,” says Ron, “our own little Spaceship Earth.”
[just the facts]
What: Star Parties welcome the public for stargazing. Professional telescopes and knowledgeable astronomy students provide quality viewing of the night sky and in-depth information on stars, planets and everything astronomy-related.
When: The first Saturday of every month, weather permitting. with parties beginning 30 minutes after sundown.
Where: Rafes Urban Astronomy Center, 2350 Tom Cole Rd., outside Denton. Park anywhere along the road.
For more info: Visit astronomy.unt.edu/starparties.html