Setting: a lakeshore in southeastern Wisconsin. Saturday evening. 9 P.M.
Dramatis personae: Susie; her husband, Tony; Susie's Mom; Susie's children, Hazel and Hannah; and Saturn, the ringed planet.
Equipment: Tele Vue Ranger, a small but mighty 70 mm (2.75-inch) refractor.
We have been hanging out by the bonfire most of the day, playing music and shooting the bull. It's now dark, and people are gradually drifting inside the house as the bonfire burns out and the spring evening cold sets in. Hannah, 15, an accomplished Irish fiddler and dancer, sends the day off with "Ashoken Farewell" on her new violin. I set up the Ranger on a camera tripod and clumsily try to center Saturn, high in the southern sky, in the eyepiece. I find it! I go in the house. Susie's mother is paging through copies of Astronomy I brought. "Look," she says to a friend visiting, "This is the astrology magazine Dan works for!"
Me: Who wants to see Saturn?
Susie's Mom comes outside, bends over the eyepiece and can't quite center on the lens at first because it's so dark outside.
Susie's mom: I don't see anything ... oh, wait, oh, wow! Isn't that something?
Susie: Hannah wanted to see this. Hannah!
Hannah comes outside. She looks through the telescope:
Hannah: Wow, that's amazing!
Me: It's a billion miles away.
Susie looks through the eyepiece.
Susie: It looks just like the little stickers I give kids at school! Isn't that funny?
Hazel, 10 years old, comes outside in her pajamas.
Me: Look at this — Saturn!
Hazel: Oh, cool.
Hazel starts to tell me how she and her sister used to play a game with the stars in Orion's belt. (Tonight, Orion is still cutting through the haze and light pollution on the southwestern horizon.) They thought of silly new names for those stars.
Me: There's a cloud of gas in one of those stars called the Orion Nebula. You gotta see this. It's a big cloud of gas where stars are being born.
Hazel: How do you know all this?
Me: I work for an astronomy magazine.
Hazel: What's that really bright one?
Me: Venus. There's a star cluster next to it called the Pleiades. Do you see all the fuzziness? That's the gas. Stars are being born in that gas. I'll come back in the summer and we'll look at the Milky Way. That'll totally blow your mind.
I hadn't seen Saturn since I was 16 — through a cheap department-store refractor, all jiggly and distorted — but it was still THERE, a world with rings, hanging in space so close you seemingly could reach out and grab it. You can't touch Saturn, but it's amazing that it never fails to touch people when they see it through a telescope for the first time.
Don't forget to share the sky with other people, especially kids, whenever you can. In fact, the first-ever International Sidewalk Astronomy Night is coming on May 19. People all over the world (including me) will be out in public sharing the sky with passers-by. See the link below for more information.