Star Party!

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I guess they thought Star Party sounded better than Astronomy Geekfest. Which I mean in a totally fantastic way, and I still would have gone if it were called that, but I suppose I can see how it might scare some folks off.

Anyway, I can’t remember when or how I first heard about the Robert Ferguson Observatory at Sugarloaf State Park, but it’s another one of those things that had been on my list of things to go check out. Although it’s only been there since the late 90’s, so it can’t have been lingering on my list for too long. Regardless, this past weekend I finally made it out to one of their Star Parties. These public observation events are held once a month, usually near the new moon. They also have daytime observation and other more in-depth programs.

The fun started with a very enthusiastic volunteer giving me detailed and entertaining instructions on where and how to park. I almost thought he was going to use his flashlight like they do to park planes, apparently I was doing OK without that. I didn’t think we were that much past the opening time but the parking lot was already almost full.

There’s a bit of a walk to the Observatory, and there were several volunteers with telescopes set up along the way. The first one we came up was pointed at the Andromeda Galaxy. Wow! The stars are so beautiful even just to the naked eye, but it’s also super cool to see more detail. It’s hard to know where exactly you’re looking though, so after I’d had a peek I asked the volunteer where it was actually located, and he pointed it out with his astronomy laser! That was way super awesome – like a laser pointer on a presentation, but powerful and sharp enough that it was actually highlighting the stars up in the sky.

Even though it’s very close to populated areas, which you would think would be not the greatest location for star-gazing, the Observatory sits in a bowl, surrounded by ridges, so there is no direct light pollution. Of course you can see glow over the tops of all the ridges – Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and the greater Bay Area, but all things considered it’s not too bad.

Besides the telescopes in the parking lot, there are three at the Observatory and there was also a presentation. We happened to arrive just at the break between, so got to hear the presentation from the beginning. It was nice being inside, as the evening was pretty chilly. The presenter asked who was a first time visitor, and most of the crowd raised their hands. It sounds like they get pretty free reign as far as what they can talk about, as long as it’s astronomy related, and we were treated to some Nuclear Physics. Good times! Fusion and fission, and how it all relates to star formation, lifetime and death. It was quite interesting, and well done. Good slides, some humor (OK, astronomy nerd humor), and nice job of making a difficult topic pretty accessible. Although I did sort of wonder how it would have been for someone with no science background and some of the families with smaller children did not last the whole time.

So many zeroes in all the numbers! The vastness of it all is quite mind-boggling. Almost incomprehensible. One of the slides I thought was neat showed all the distance values for a light-second, to a light-minute, etc. up to light-year. I’d never thought about all the other units besides light-year, and I suppose they aren’t really useful for much, but it was one of those “hmn. oh yeah” moments. Another cool thing (and new thing for the day!) was the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which plots the stars types, temperatures and brightnesses.

After the presentation back out into the cold to check out the Observatory’s scopes. One is computer controlled, and they were looking at a variety of things. It’s up on a screen, so you can come and go. The other two are the one person at a time look through type, and there were lines for both. The 8 inch was pointed at Jupiter! It also showed 4 of the 64 moons, and you could see a couple of lines across Jupiter which are cloud banks! The 24 inch was pointed at the Orion Nebula, which is a star forming region, so swirling clouds o stuff. We’d also seen this from the parking lot scopes, but there was even more detail with the bigger scope of course. Magnificent!

The 24 inch had a FOR SALE sign on it! Apparently they are getting a 40 inch scope, so if you know anyone who’s in the market, have them give the Observatory a jingle!

Wonderful evening, I’m glad I finally made it! Definitely worth checking out. You can also camp up at Sugarloaf, so that might be a neat way to do it.

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