In early April I received a call from Ron Loyd (remember this name; you may hearing it again soon) from the Whitmore Lake Library asking if the Lowbrows would mind giving a demo for the kids at the local middle school. The students had recently been studying the Moon, the planets and stellar evolution - a bit of input from some amateur astronomers could enhance their education.
After speaking with Shelly Lyon, our contact at Whitmore Lake Middle School, John Potts and I arranged to arrive on May 2nd to give a tag-team question-and-answer session and to show the children (and the adults!) the planets through our respective telescopes. As this was less than 2 weeks before the “grand alignment,” the timing was almost perfect.
I say almost perfect because the time slot that we were given was from 8:00-9:00 PM (some parents not wanting their kids out too late, I suppose). Sunset was around 8:30 - not a lot of time for observing afterwards. We were going to be cutting it close.
John and I arrived with our equipment (a NextStar 5, a NextStar 8, a 400mm lens and all the support equipment) and set it up on the far side of the building. There was a little nervousness that the activity on the adjacent soccer field would get too near to us but, fortunately, that fear turned out to be groundless. Since I-23 ran right by the school, there was a fairly low horizon towards the west.
As we were setting up, I realized that I forgot once necessary bit of gear: a warm coat. The high winds made my experience a little more interesting.
I started out at the Q & A first while John guarded the equipment. The students asked some really good questions such as “How do astronomers actually observe objects in space?” and “What was the most exciting thing you saw in a telescope?” I hope that the content of my answers more than made up for my somewhat incoherent diction.
After John had his go at the Q & A, it was dark enough to see Venus and Jupiter. There was plenty “oohs” and “wows” from young and old alike. Venus a delight for everyone since they actually got to see that not only was it not just a point of light, but showed phases like our own Moon. Jupiter had its distinctive equatorial belts and Galilean moons. I don’t think that anyone just looked through the eyepieces only one time....
Some folks stayed long enough for Mars and Saturn to appear as well. Mars was a small, featureless dot in both John’s telescope and mine (yes, the dust storms are still there), but when we showed Saturn to the remaining crowd, it was easy to tell that they were glad to have endured the cold for this object. Not only did they get to see the rings, but they got to see them at near maximum tilt towards the Earth. I had mentioned earlier that one of my favorite astronomical moments was the first time that I saw Saturn in a telescope; I don’t think that I was alone in that sentiment.
Eventually it was time to go. Shelly helped us port the equipment back to our vehicles and extended her appreciation. I had a lot of fun, but the first thing that I did when I got home was drink a few rounds of cocoa.
I will end this article with a question for all of you - should we try to make this an annual event?