For the second time is as many weeks (after Thessaloniki, Greece), Astronomy’s Discover the Universe program can claim an event full of successful sidewalk astronomy. Ted Forte of the Back Bay Amateur Astronomers reports:
Our members arrived around 3 p.m. to kick off the event with some solar viewing. We set up three Hydrogen-alpha (Hα) scopes and a 10-inch Dobsonian with a white-light filter. The Sun cooperated superbly, with several sunspots and a great deal of activity visible in Hα. The late-afternoon park patrons were curious, and some worried about safety — didn’t Mom say never look at the Sun? My usual quip, “Just use your bad eye,” broke the ice and often lead into an explanation of how to view the Sun safely. Solar observing is something people don’t typically do, and it seldom fails to impress novice observers. The early stages of these outreach events are particularly enjoyable because you can take the time to discuss what you are seeing, and thoughtfully answer questions like “What is a sunspot?” or “Is the Sun really a star?”
As night approached, we faced bands of fast-moving clouds and rapidly dropping temperatures, which made us a little apprehensive. We had invited the whole city out to look through our scopes, and it looked like Mother Nature might put a damper on things. We persevered, however, and in the end numerous gaps in the clouds made the night a great success. The official count topped 850 people, with more than 8 hours of observing. It’s a slightly lower turnout than in previous years, but still remarkable given the unseasonable conditions.
More than a dozen telescopes, ranging from an 80mm refractor to my 18-inch Obsession Dobsonian, pointed skyward. Most observers began with the nearly Full Moon. I centered my scope on the bright crater Tycho and zoomed in at about 115x. Soon I found myself discussing everything from the age of lunar craters to the life and work of Tycho Brahe.
Fellow BBAA member Mark Ost perfectly expressed our universal appreciation of the starry sky: “The number of nationalities gathered under the stars reflects the cosmopolitan nature of our community and the commonality we all share, irrespective of language and origin. Our differences shrink when seen from cosmic distances. Funny what a small tube with a lens and mirror can accomplish. In an odd way, looking out is another way of looking in.”
We humans have an innate and visceral connection to the stars, yet so many of us have never had the opportunity to share the night sky. There is no more rewarding feature of our hobby than outreach — the opportunity to share the universe with people who might otherwise live their lives without a single glance skyward. It is a most worthy pastime, and one we heartily recommend.
Congratulations on hosting such a great star party, Ted! Your attitude toward outreach is exactly what we’re trying to cultivate among astronomy clubs, which is why Astronomy magazine started the Discover the Universe program in the first place. If you have any questions about how it can help your club, please e-mail me at email@example.com.