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WANDERLUST: A GUIDE TO STARGAZING
The night sky glitters, lights skip and dance, and those down below gaze and
wonder. They watch closely and follow the show, connecting the dots, plotting
Stargazing Across the Front Range
When most of us look up at the blanket of blue sky we see twinkles of light,
a sliver of moon, and – if by chance we’re looking through binoculars – we
may see something else, a passing of another planet, Mars perhaps. And on those
nights sky gazers get a glimpse of the environment beyond the night sky.
Realizing that the earth is but one of many planets in the solar system is a
concept that most students learn in school and one that many adults do not truly
grasp until they stumble out into a dark, clear night and look up at the sky. At
some point you realize that the sky, albeit a beautiful canvas, is a small part
of a much larger environment in which planets swirl at breath-taking speeds in
an oxygen-free sphere.
"We have a very rich astronomical heritage that people forget in modern
times," says Jim Beaber, astronomy resource specialist for the Jefferson
County Schools Planetarium. His goal, he says, is to remind them of its
influence and ongoing significance. The Planetarium, which has been operational
for the last 40 years, offers 14 programs such as "The Night Sky" and
"The Sky Tonight" that touch on the influence of the solar system.
In an attempt to get a better perspective on the solar system I took a trip
to the Gates Planetarium in Denver with my husband, sat back and realized how
much there is to explore, and see. New technology enables laypeople, those who
may recognize the names of Saturn, Pluto, and Uranus from schoolbooks, to see
picture-perfect images of passing planets. And as they swirled by, we began to
grasp how vast the solar system is. And how small a part we have in it.
As the lights dimmed, audience members rocked back in their seats leaning
their heads back to get a full view of the ceiling, which reveals a journey
through space. The 20-minute show is a perfect bite-size introduction to the
world of star gazing, which appeals to a greater number of people – men and
women of all ages – who seek their own experiences in space.
A Romance with the Stars
Stargazing has an inextricable link to romance. It’s got all the essential
components: mystery, chase and ultimate discovery.
An independent hobby, stargazing is an activity that is easily shared by
couples, families, and friends and an increasing number of people host star
parties or gather to experience events together. There are annual conventions,
monthly seminars, and sporadic parties and get-togethers for local stargazers.
Planetariums and universities are the best way to meet like-minded stargazers,
many of whom say that the best weather conditions for stargazing are cold, dark
nights when – across the Front Range – clear skies can be viewed by the
"Stargazing is an intensely relaxing hobby," says Carolyn Collins
Petersen, a science writer and author who guest lectures and hosts star parties.
"Even though some people find it intimidating at first it’s nothing more
complex than looking up at the stars and exploring."
In truth nothing could be simpler than gazing at the open sky though some
choose binoculars for a clearer view or telescopes of varying strengths. But
many professionals say that a good set of eyes and a star chart or planisphere
is all that you need to get started.
"You can point your way to other places, and you’ll find people who
are more than happy to help you," says Petersen, who launched a website (www.thespacewriter.com)
for stargazers in the ’90s. The website offers its visitors a tour of the
stars and planets with articles and other related links. "It [stargazing]
is infectious, you really get hooked."
At the age of four – possibly five – Collins Petersen was hooked when she
heard about Sputnik being launched into orbit. "I thought ‘orbit’ was a
cool word. It was the first time I really looked up and realized there was
something up there."
But it wasn’t the last. Collins Petersen, who moved to Boston from Colorado
for a job at SkyWatch Magazine and currently works with her husband to
produce astronomy materials for planetariums and science centers, emphasizes the
ease of stargazing across the Front Range. "You just have to find the night
sky…the patterns. It’s just like looking at a road map of Boulder," she
says. "You just need to know where the streets are and what intersects
Indeed, before setting off for a drive you check maps to gauge distance or
print out directions online. For stargazers the same is true. But unlike the
congestion of city streets, stars and planets are connected by a web devoid of
traffic, aloft from the hustle and bustle of earthly concerns; one of its many
draws. And the map you’d print out would be a planisphere (available at www.skyandtelescope.com)
to chart your course.
Robert Morris, Astronomy Educator for the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, sees
a steady influx of people who are interested in stargazing and attributes the
local draw to Colorado’s dark skies. "It doesn’t take much effort to
drive up into the mountains and see a sky full of stars," he says. Longmont
is one of his favorite spots though "anywhere away from the cities is
actually a good spot," he adds.
Similar to the enticement of a new town, stargazers approach the heavens with
a quest for knowledge, escape, or perspective.
"As I stargaze I often wonder what it would be like to be on a spaceship
floating past a distant planet or through a nebula," says Collins Petersen
who frequently visited Golden Gate Park, Brainard Lake and Rocky Mountain
From most gauges, stargazing draws an increasing number of men and women of
all ages and backgrounds. "Trying to find out how many people are
stargazing is kind of like trying to herd amoebas," says Collins Petersen.
"For a long time people thought stargazing was a ‘guy’ thing, [but] it’s
not. I’ve lectured at star parties where ladies are setting up their scopes
next to the guys, the 6-year-olds are out there having as much fun as the
60-year-olds, and everybody’s a geek and loving it."
And while time in life may differ, many stargazers say the realization that
there is another world available to them is both invigorating as well as
relaxing. It provides them with endless educational opportunities, a venue for
escape, and for perspective.
Across the Front Range there are ample opportunities for stargazing since
high elevations and the black night sky are a combination for stargazing
success. And while binoculars are helpful, many stargazers simply employ their
own eyes to steer the cosmos. For those who seek a more powerful view,
planetariums offer public events.
"The public has always turned up in large numbers to our weekly
telescope viewings," says Morris. "And whenever there is a special
event, such as the Mars close approach or lunar eclipse, we end up with a full
Historically there was an enormous leap between novice stargazers, who wait
for clear nights and trounces off, binoculars in hand to watch a show of lights.
But that gap is closing, says Collins Petersen. Professionals are enlisting the
help of novice stargazers to track the movement of comets, asteroids, or
gravitational listing, she says. "Some [novices] have better equipment than