Observing Report: PVAA at the park, October 4, 2020

October 4, 2020

My club, the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers (PVAA), is gradually adjusting to the pandemic. From March through June, we didn’t hold any club activities. In July we had our first board meeting since February, virtually of course, and we decided to dip our toes into holding virtual general meetings. We also wanted to give people a way to interact in person, but safely, and someone proposed having a socially-distanced get-together at a local park. We had our first one of those at the end of July. I was out of town, on a brief family vacation after the end of summer teaching, so I missed that one. We’ve been trying to hold another one ever since, but heat and poor air quality have bedeviled us. We finally held another “PVAA at the park” event last night.

It was a combination swap meet, star party, and social event. In the photo above, we were just setting up, but we ended up with five telescopes on the field, representing every major design:

  • our club Treasurer, Gary Thompson, brought the blue homebuilt 8″ Dobsonian reflector you can see at the left of the above photo;
  • board member Jay Zacks brought his Meade ETX 90, a Maksutov-Cassegrain;
  • I had my Celestron NexStar 8SE, a Schmidt-Cassegrain;
  • club member Karen Lenz brought a 60mm or 70mm Tasco refractor (I forgot to check the specs);
  • club members Thomas and Stephanie Chavez brought their Celestron FirstScope, another small Dobsonian reflector.

Karen Lenz had brought her refractor to donate to the club. By complete coincidence, we had a visitor in need of a scope: an enthusiastic and knowledgeable 6th-grader. So Karen passed on her scope, our visitor got his first serious telescope, and everyone was happy. Despite the reputation of small, “department store” refractors, this one was solidly mounted and optically sharp, and it got a lot of use throughout the evening.

I took the NexStar 8SE, and used it to show guests Jupiter and Saturn, and the double stars Polaris, Mizar & Alcor, and Eta Cassiopiae. I tried various deep-sky objects, but they all looked pretty yucky. The only one that looked good enough to show off was M11, the Wild Duck Cluster.

I was having too much fun bopping around among the various telescopes and chatting with visitors to be in gear-evaluation mode. I was aware that the FOV of the C8 was bigger with the new focal reducer attached, but I didn’t do any serious testing. That will have to wait for another evening.

Around 8:30 we decided to carry some of the scopes over to the west, in hopes of seeing Mars over the trees at the east edge of the park. We got good views of Mars in Gary’s 8″ Dob, and then we spotted a break in the trees to try and get the moon. Our young visitor brought over the Tasco refractor, and Thomas and Stephanie brought over their FirstScope, and we spent 10 or 15 minutes just enjoying the sight of the moon coming up through the leaves. I got the above photo through the refractor, and it reminded me of the fun I used to have catching the moon rising through distant trees up on Mount Baldy (here and here). I need to get back to that.

All in all, it was a great evening. We had a good turnout, conditions were nice, we had a nice variety of scopes set up, and I think everyone enjoyed themselves. I’m already looking forward to the next one.


  1. As someone who had been observing every single friday night as a public observatory host, this pandemic has been pretty rough, and I’ve desperately been missing doing astronomy outreach. A few times I’ve taken my dob to the convenience store near my house (i like to observe the Moon under bright lights). Just before the pandemic I started my sidewalk astronomy journey, and it was cut short about a week later. However, each time I brought my dob to that convenience store, I’d inevitably do some sidewalk astronomy. This was great, but it was also awful, because it’s not safe.

    I tried video astronomy for International Observe The Moon Night (you can read a report about it on my blog, linked in my name) but there just wasn’t the same response to it as you get when looking through the eyepiece. And planets are difficult to find and nothing like as interesting.

    Do you have any specific advice as to how to run a star party or sidewalk astronomy event safely during a pandemic? What precautions should be taken? I don’t want anyone to get sick or worse.

  2. Please, please, PLEASE don’t do any outreach during the pandemic. Your eye is a perfect vector for transmission of the disease. It’s a giant mucous membrane. Members of the general public have no idea how to use an eyepiece. They jamb their eyeball right up in there. Then the next person comes along and it’s the same thing, and boom. Now you’re spreading the virus.

    There’s a reason why every astroclub has cancelled all in person events, and that’s because their very dangerous.

  3. I suppose there is no circumstance where the risk of transmission can be completely ruled out, but everyone masked up, outdoors, maintaining a healthy distance from one another is probably about as low as it gets. The only people not keeping a decent distance from each other were those living in the same household. No-one shook hands or hugged, at most a few of us signed off with an elbow bump.

    It helps that everyone in the club is scientifically literate and takes the pandemic seriously, and that we’re in “the town of trees and PhDs” where community compliance with public health directives is probably as high as it gets anywhere. I’d be a little more nervous doing something like this for the general public in a red state, mostly out of worry over things like mask compliance and deliberate provocation.

    I’m skeptical about transmission via telescope eyepieces. You’d have to be pretty determined to stop the blink reflex before your cornea hit anything. I always use eyepieces with reasonably long eye relief at these events, out of deference to eyeglasses wearers, and I warn people to keep their eyes back a bit from the eyepiece. I suppose the risk of transmission is microscopically higher than staying home, but the same could be said for taking a walk (which I’m sure is even less dangerous than looking through someone else’s scope) or going to the grocery store (which I’m equally sure is vastly more dangerous, mostly by dint of being indoors).

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