To party with the stars, head to a local observatory
August 8, 2015 12:00 AM
Dan Peden of Brookline, left, with Philip Sahady, 7, of Republic, Fayette County, using Mr. Peden's 8-inch refractor telescope at the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh's Star Party at Mingo Observatory in Mingo Creek County Park in Washington County
People wait in line to look through a telescope at the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh's Star Party at Mingo Observatory in Mingo Creek County Park in Washington County
Fred Klein of Monroeville, left, with 11-inch reflector mirror telescope at the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh's Star Party at Mingo Observatory in Mingo Creek County Park in Washington County.
Fred Klein of Monroeville with 11-inch reflector mirror telescope, left, and Karen McCurry of Whitehall look at Saturn during the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh's Star Party at Mingo Observatory in Mingo Creek County Park in Washington County.
Fred Klein of Monroeville shows his photo stored on a cell phone that he took with his 11-inch reflector mirror telescope of Galaxy M-33. The red light helps you keep your night vision.
Karen McCurry of Whitehall, left, and her brother Darin McCurry of Lawrenceville take pictures at the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh's Star Party at Mingo Observatory in Mingo Creek County Park in Washington County. In the background is the park's 24-inch Ritchey-Chretien Reflector telescope.
Amber, 5, and her dad Mike Mistick of North Strabane, get a look at the moon at the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh's Star Party at Mingo Observatory in Mingo Creek County Park in Washington County. They are viewing with a 10-inch refractor telescope, with the red used to help them keep their night vision.
By Bob Batz Jr. / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As I drove, I asked my almost-8-year-old son in the seat behind me, “Are you interested in looking at the stars and the planets and astronomy and stuff?”
“Not really,” he replied.
And thus we headed for our first “star party.”
My science-geek wife and I had wanted for years to go to one of the night-sky viewings that are regularly held at two local observatories. On the weekend of July 24-25, the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh held parties at both Wagman Observatory up north (in Frazer) and Mingo Creek Park Observatory down south (near Venetia, Washington County).
We decided to visit Mingo, in part because its 10th anniversary will be celebrated with more star parties on Aug. 14-15. More than twice as big as Wagman, which opened in 1987, Mingo was built in the summer of 2004 for about $400,000, mostly in private donations. Donations are welcome to keep it going, but star parties are free.
Both observatories are about 20 miles drive from Downtown on hills distant from light pollution and are operated by the 300-plus-member club. Its excellent website (https://3ap.org/) describes a star party like this: “Take a whole bunch of friendly, intelligent, telescope-toting amateur astronomers, anxious to share their hobby, put them in a large open meadow at the top of a gentle hill with excellent views to all horizons, add two large permanent telescopes, and invite the public.”
The site tells visitors to phone ahead to check if the skies are clear enough for good viewing; to not bring alcoholic beverages and not smoke (it’s bad for the telescopes, too); to bring a folding chair and warm clothing. Then it says:
“No food or beverages are served, so bring your own coffee to stay warm on those cool autumn nights, and bring chocolate chip cookies to bribe your way to the head of any lines.”
There are a few other star-party rules, the most important of which is to turn off your headlights and use your parking lights if you drive in after dark. “To really appreciate the sights to be seen in the night sky, it is best to have one’s eyes completely dark-adapted, which can take up to 30 minutes.”
This Mingo party started at 5:30 p.m. with the opportunity to safely look at the sun through the observatory’s 4-inch solar telescope. We arrived around 8 p.m., emerged out of pretty Mingo Creek Park’s woods and wound up the hill toward the windowless white observatory building, pulling off the drive to park in the grass with what already was more than 40 other cars. Our son couldn’t resist running down the hill and back.
It was a beautiful, mostly clear night, which has been rare, so this party was extra busy (there can be 150-200 visitors on a good night, says observatory director Nick Martch). We signed in with another of the friendly club volunteers at the front desk, Sally Swieck, who over the intercom welcomed everyone by saying, “We wish you clear skies and happy viewing!”
We waited in short lines with other families to enter rooms, with roofs rolled back to open sky, that hold the 24-inch reflector telescope and a 10-inch refractor telescope. As the sun set, both scopes were pointed at the cratered surface of the moon. “Cool!” our son said.
We squeezed into the planetarium theater for an interesting and timely program on Pluto (where a day lasts 153 hours), including just-released-that-day images that also kept our son engaged. When that was over, the sky was almost dark. We moved through the soft red lights (easier on the eyes) to look through the big telescope again, now trained at what looked to the naked eye like a bright star, but what the scope revealed to be Saturn and its rings. “Really cool,” we agreed.
Like other partygoers, we checked out some of the displays inside, then moved out into the grass to try several telescopes that astronomy buffs had set up to use and share. Local nature photographer Don Weiss said someone had just given him his, “so I really know nothing about it,” but he nicely adjusted it so our son could have another look at Saturn. The planet hardly looked like something real.
Inside the planetarium, a crowd took in a sky show projected onto the domed ceiling (a way for Mingo to show the night sky even on cloudy, rainy nights). Another club volunteer led a group outside and gave a tour of the real sky with a laser pointer. I chatted with a few club members, including Kathy DeSantis, who helped build this place and who says she’s been to every star party here over the decade since. “To me,” she says, “this is about building community.”
The star party would continue into the wee hours of morning — “As long as these people want to go,” said Mr. Martch — but my son was fading fast, and so we stepped out into the balmy night and walked back to the car, happily listening to the cicadas and crickets as we paused to look up one more time before the drive home.
Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@ post-gazette.com and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.
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