Galilean Nights!

October 23, 2009

Yarf! How’d I miss this one?

As part of IYA 2009, last spring astronomers around the world, both amateur and professional, hosted a weekend of stargazing called 100 Hours of Astronomy. The first two nights were clouded out for me, and I knew I’d be out of town for the fourth, but the third cleared up nicely. So I took my little telescope downtown, set it up in the public square, and ended up showing the first quarter moon to 144 passersby. That was my first experiment with the time-honored tradition of sidewalk astronomy: setting up a telescope in a public place to show the wonders of the heavens to whoever happens by–for free.

Since then I’ve tried to get downtown with the scope once or twice a month. Most people are happy to take a look and even happier once they have. A lot of folks tell me that it’s their first time looking through a telescope, and usually at least one or two people tell me that it was the highlight of their evening.

So it’s completely ridonkulous that I haven’t blogged yet about Galilean Nights, which is going on right now. The 100 Hours of Astronomy event was so successful that the organizers of IYA 2009 decided to do it again. Starting yesterday and running through tomorrow (Saturday) night, amateurs and pros everywhere are hitting the streets and the web with the goal of getting as many people as possible to do something very simple: look through a telescope. The moon is waxing, Jupiter is riding high in the southern sky, and if the weather doesn’t cooperate there are opportunities to do some remote observing.

Having somehow forgotten about the big show, I took my scope downtown last night anyway, just because that’s what I do at this point in the lunar cycle. Weeknights are kinda slow and in the space of an hour I only saw 22 people. I was back out tonight, and got 79 visitors. But it’s not about numbers, it’s about connecting with people and connecting people with the sky, and I had a grand time both nights. Sometimes the slow nights are best, you get more time to chat with folks. Not everyone wants to look, and that’s okay. But those that do–kids, grandparents, teenagers, whoever–everyone is moved by the sight of the moon and planets.

So here’s a sort of meta-mission assignment for you: if you have seen the moon or Jupiter (or whatever looks nice when you find this, my visitors-from-the-future) through your binoculars or telescope, share. Maybe you have a child or significant other that has never braved the cold and dark to stargaze. Maybe there’s a kid across the street or an elderly neighbor down the road that has never looked through a telescope. Maybe you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with a safe public place nearby. Doesn’t matter if your telescope is fully tricked out or fully humble, or if you don’t know exactly how far away Jupiter is. Sidewalk astronomy isn’t about giving people all the answers–it’s about giving them access, to something that belongs to all of us, but that they might never have seen before.

My first night out with the scope, I was nervous and fumbling and could hardly bring myself to ask the first person walking by, “Would you like to see the moon?” The guy stopped and looked, and what he said wasn’t printable (this is a family establishment; use your imagination), but it was gratifying. And I was off and running.

Go have fun!


  1. I would have had more fun at our event last night if the clouds hadn’t covered everything. Did get to see an iridium flair, though. I’ve never been interested much in astronomy but now I’m thinking I should something about that. Hopefully I’ll get another chance to try a telescope soon.

  2. should do something about. sheesh. I hate when my brain reads but my eyes don’t see…

  3. Hey, Matt, I had about 20 students at the Webb Observatory Friday night. We played with the C-14-inch and our 24-inch Newtonian. The Moon was too low when we started, but Jupiter was nice, with three moons very evenly spaced on one side. Went to Albireo, M57, and explored the Pleiades’s.
    I hope you’ll get Andy to bring you up to our site sometime.

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