The moon may be the most familiar object in the night sky, but it still draws the biggest gasps.
My 10-year-old son climbed three steps to reach the eyepiece of a huge telescope at Onan Observatory in Baylor Regional Park west of Minneapolis.
"That's...really... cool," he finally said, after gazing a moment at the crescent just above a dark line of trees. "It's, like, really close. I can see individual craters!"
When it was my turn, I saw what he meant. I could see shadows cast by the craters' rims and the sharp line on the moon's surface where sunlight ended and darkness began. When I pulled back from the eyepiece and looked at the moon with my naked eye, it was with a newfound feeling of awe.
Volunteers with the Minnesota Astronomical Society make these moments of awe available through public viewings - star parties - held a few Saturdays every month from March through November. Last year, nearly 4,000 people came to two dozen events, including the society's annual spring and fall astronomy days and a summer camp out.
Fall is one of the best times to star gaze because the air is crisp and clear and darkness arrives well before bedtime.
My friend and I took our fourth-grade sons to the public star party recently in Onan. The society maintains three other observatories open to members near Cannon Falls, Woodbury and rural Aitkin County. But Onan is the only one that runs programs geared to the public.
After an hourlong drive into the setting sun from St. Paul, we reached the park at twilight to find a couple of hundred adults and children milling around an observatory that looked like a white, hoop-framed greenhouse.
The front half of the roof was retracted so the society's four large telescopes had an open view of the darkening sky. Beyond the edge of a circular concrete pad, a dozen or more people had set up their own telescopes in a semicircle in the grass.
Volunteer Ron Schmit was talking to kids, many in scout uniforms, sitting on benches. The Saturday we visited, Oct. 1, happened to be fall astronomy day, so there was extra programming and it was more crowded than a regular public-viewing night.
"You guys want to see Saturn?" asked Schmit, an engaging speaker who later in the evening gave a constellation tour with a green laser beam he called his light saber.
"Yeah!" yelled all the kids.
"Sorry. You can't," said Schmit. "We do have the moon though. The moon is showing up tonight. And Jupiter."
I spotted a bright white light rising over a dark silhouette of the treeline, near where the moon had just set.
"Excuse me," I said to the man next to me. "See that bright object just over the trees? Is that Jupiter?
"No," he said. "It's an airplane."
As I watched, the dot of light sprouted red flashing lights and banked into a turn. After that gaff, I figured I could not possibly embarrass myself further, so I decided to get out and meet some people.
GETTING A CLOSER LOOK
It is a little awkward to walk up to complete strangers in the dark. But everyone at the star party was happy to share their passion. "What have you got in your telescope?" seemed to be a good opening line.
We tried it on Jennifer Weavering, who had brought her nearly 5-foot-long Orion SkyQuest Dobsonian telescope. It had a 12-inch diameter mirror, which makes it about a foot wide. It resembled a black canon.
Weavering's father was president of an astronomy club in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, so she grew up going to star parties as a kid.
"When I was a teenager, I thought it was really stupid and nerdy," she said.
But as an adult, she embraced the hobby, and after 10 years of looking at the sky with her dad's old binoculars, she finally bought her first telescope this year. She has been setting it up in her back yard in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, where she has been able to see things far away in space, like the Hercules cluster, despite the urban lights.
When we came by, she was looking at Jupiter. To the naked eye, the planet looked like a bright star rising in the southeast. (Not in the direction of my airplane.) When we bent to look through the eyepiece, we could see its reddish-brown stripes and even three of its moons, which looked like tiny white discs.
"Those are the Galilean moons!" my 10-year-old announced, pleased to show off what he had learned during last year's school unit on space. When Galileo spotted Jupiter's moons in 1610, it was the first time anyone had seen an object that orbited something other than Earth or our sun.
A few steps away, Jeff Trinh-Sy was adjusting his telescope. He teaches astronomy at the Blake School in Minneapolis and quickly slipped into educator mode, whipping out a green laser to show us the Summer Triangle, three bright stars called Deneb, Vega and Altair. Deneb forms the tail of the swan in the constellation Cygnus. From there, he traced a line with his laser to the swan's head, a star called Albireo, which turned out to be a double star.
"See them?" asked Trinh-Sy, as my son bent over the eyepiece. "Can you see the two? One is more red, and one is blue."
"Cool," said my son. "So, does that mean they orbit around each other?"
APPRECIATING THE VIEW
All around us, people were leaning over their telescopes, making adjustments or consulting star charts using dim red lights.
By then, I had lost my son several times. His black stocking cap made him invisible in the crowded darkness. I caught up with him again near the society's 14-inch telescope that feeds images to a television monitor.
A couple of people were debating what they were seeing on the small screen. Was it the whirlpool galaxy or the pinwheel galaxy? All I could see was a gray swirl.
They quickly concluded it was the pinwheel galaxy, near the handle of the Big Dipper. And then someone pointed out a star on its edge, a supernova that has been in the news since it was detected in August.
It looked like any other star, and I didn't get the full importance of what I was looking at until I thought about it.
A light-year, the distance light travels in one year, equals about 6 trillion miles. Twenty-one million light-years ago, a star exploded, and the light from that explosion is just now reaching us on Earth. I was looking at the light of a dying star.
This realization pointed out a truth of star gazing. A lot of what you see through a telescope will be boring unless you know what you're looking at.
"Some people are almost disappointed in what they see because they expect to see these incredible reds and blues, and all they see is a faint white smudge, and we say, 'Yes, that's the galaxy right there, that faint little smudge," said Merle Hiltner, a society volunteer who organizes the public-viewing nights.
"Virtually all the pictures you see in books are time exposures. That's why they look so spectacular. Our eyes don't do time exposure. We do one frame per millisecond. The light we gather won't be as intense as when the Hubble camera opens up," Hiltner said.
To appreciate the things that show up in a telescope as - to use an astronomy phrase - gray, faint fuzzies, you have to bring imagination and knowledge.
EXPANDING YOUR HORIZONS
Late in the night, Weaverling found the dumbbell nebula in her telescope for the first time.
"It looked a little bit like...well...it looks like a smudge, right?" she said. But she was still giddy when I spoke to her the next day by phone.
"You have to think, 'I'm actually looking at the light from another galaxy!' Sometimes, it's more about the idea. Where this light is coming from, than the actual image," she said.
"I don't know if I'll ever get jaded," she added.
Ron Schmit feels a similar sense of wonder.
"For me, it's about that light from millions of years ago smashing into your very own retina," Schmit said. "That photon is literally 2 million years old. That's where it gets personal."
And, if you let in the awe, along with the light, it's can be transforming.
"I think people kind of get into the rut of the same old, same old," Schmit said. "And by getting into a rut, we miss those experiences that are a little beyond our horizons. Astronomy lets you see this thing that is trillions of miles away.
"Being challenged to reconcile what you're looking at, with what you understand, it opens you up to new ideas. If you give it adequate regard, it blows your mind. There is so much in nature that can do that for us, but we seem to miss it so often," he said.
"The joy of astronomy for me isn't so much in finding those faint, gray fuzzies. I mean, I can sit all night on a mountain top in Arizona and look for a nebula. But my real joy is getting people to that eyepiece for the first time and opening their mind."
It worked on my family. Later this month, my children and I are heading down to southwestern Minnesota to visit my aunt and uncle on their farm. It's two miles from Iowa, far from the lights of the city. I plan to take a star chart and binoculars.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Public star parties at Onan Observatory
Where: Baylor Regional Park, 10775 County Road 33, Norwood Young America
When: 7 to 10 p.m. Oct. 22 and 29 and Nov. 19
Information: 952-467-2426, mnastro.org
Target audience: Anyone from amateur astronomer to people who have never bothered to look up.
Crowd pleaser: Seeing the craters of the moon.
Avoid: Being cold. Dress warmly. You'll be outside. The nearest bathroom is also a hike.
Tip: Dress your kids in something that makes them easy to spot in the dark. A flashlight could also be helpful, but regular white lights are discouraged; they hamper night vision. To make a cheap red light, cover a flashlight in red cellophane or paint the lens with red nail polish.
More: Read previously published Family Outings under "family fun" at MinnMoms.com.
OTHER PLACES TO STARGAZE AROUND THE TWIN CITIES
University of Minnesota's Institute for Astrophysics hosts public viewings on the roof of the Tate physics building from 8 to 10:30 p.m. every Friday. A graduate student generally leads a short presentation on a different topic each week, followed by viewing in the dome and outside. During the summer, the department also runs Universe in the Park at state and local parks. www.astro.umn.edu/outreach.
Eisenhower Observatory on top of the Eisenhower Community Center in Hopkins opens its dome most Thursday evenings and at other scheduled times for two-hour public viewings. Requested donation is $2 for adults and $1 for kids. Reservations are required, and sessions often fill up. 952-988-4074, hopkinsschools.org/community-education/adult-programs/eisenhower-observatory.
Goodsell Observatory at Carlton College in Northfield holds free public viewings the first Friday of the month. Times vary according to sunset. 7 to 9 p.m. Nov. 4 and Dec. 2. http://go.carleton.edu/83.
Meteorologist and Pioneer Press columnist Mike Lynch leads regular astronomy presentations throughout Minnesota during the fall. Generally, he brings along his 20-inch Dobsonian telescope. Check the schedule at lynchandthestars.com. (Read his weekly column in the Sunday Life section.)
— Maja Beckstrom