Planetarium illuminates night sky
Support: Tulare Astronomical Association helps telescope amateurs
Unbeknownst to drivers of the cars racing by on Highway 65 Friday night, shadowy figures huddle around expensive scientific equipment in a nearby field, conducting an activity that traces back to a man born over 400 years ago.
In conjunction with a Tulare County Office of Education program at the Peña Planetarium, members of the Tulare Astronomical Association staked out their territory on that nondescript patch of grass Friday to host a long night of stargazing — just as Galileo did in 1609.
TAA president Greg Eckes said that many planetarium visitors have never looked through a telescope.
“They’re amazed they can see craters on the moon,” he said.
The planetarium program coincides with the International Year of Astronomy, currently drawing to a close.
TAA members made themselves available before and after the show for stargazing tips and tricks — a quick Telescope 101.
The most common problem newly minted telescope owners have is not knowing how to line up the finder scope, Eckes said.
He and a cadre of TAA members displayed their scopes while helping others set up and align their own.
“They don’t just come out of the box ready to go,” Eckes said.
One eager attendee, Porterville resident Carolina Christenson, brought her family — and her beloved telescope — along with her to the planetarium.
A student at the Summit Charter Academy Redwood campus, Christenson has pursued her interest in becoming an astronaut by attending three space camps, as well as local events like the planetarium show.
She received her telescope as a Christmas present two years ago, but has used it only once or twice, she said.
“I wanted to see if [TAA members] could help me see the stars and help me with how to use it,” Christenson said.
According to planetarium director Sara Sutton, Christenson is one of more than 16,000 students who have visited the planetarium this year.
The stargazing field, only a few minutes away from the planetarium, isn’t ideal for looking at the night skies because of light pollution from nearby businesses, Eckes said.
However, TAA members were able to easily train their instruments on Jupiter, a number of constellations and the Andromeda galaxy.
Carolina Christenson’s younger brother, Joshua, perched on the ground with his own small telescope, invited passersby to view the moon through his scope’s three different lenses.
The Christensons, among others, peeked through Carolina’s telescope for what Eckes called a “feel for the real sky.”
Eckes said some first time stargazers are surprised that views from a telescope aren’t in color.
“We’re a little spoiled in our society now because we have those Hubble photos, but looking through a telescope is black and white,” he said.
Prior to stargazing, nearly a full theater of adults and children craned their necks as they watched cosmic scenes flit across the 30 foot dome of the planetarium.
The show, entitled “Two Small Pieces of Glass: The Amazing Telescope,” reviewed the development of the telescope up to its latest modern-day iterations such as the well-known Hubble telescope.
Friday’s planetarium showing was created specifically to recognize the 400 year anniversary of the first time Galileo looked through his telescope, Sutton said.
Conan Palmer, the planetarium’s media developer, said that the past year’s transition from slide projectors to digital shows has cut preparation time down to barely one minute.
Likening complicated scientific concepts to everyday experiences made the show’s subject matter accessible to all, even astronomical amateurs.
The narrator explained how temperature affects the color of a star by noting how candle flames change color from top to bottom.
Eckes said information like this fits in directly with the goal of the TAA: “We’d like to educate the public about astronomy and make them aware of it.”
He said one of the reasons people are not exposed to astronomy is because light pollution has made seeing deep into space more difficult than ever before.
“In our society now, we have so many lights, many people don’t even know what the night sky looks like,” Eckes said.
Inside the planetarium, a $700,000 star projector negated this issue. Sutton used the instrument to lead a short indoor tour of the Friday night sky.
She pointed out constellations visible in Tulare County for most of the year, like the Big Dipper.
For Visalia resident Randy Walker, who attended with his wife Jeanne, the star tour was the highlight of the night.
“I liked [the show] because it was real time stargazing,” he said.
One young observer found the showing so enthralling he could do little but clap his hands together in delight at its conclusion.
Sergio Lozano, a first grader from Visalia, has a passion for planets.
His mother, Elsa Lozano, took him to the planetarium as a reward for an academic achievement award he recently received in school.
“I thought it was a good experience for him to get to come here,” she said.
-- Contact Sarah de Crescenzo at 784-5000, Ext. 1045, or firstname.lastname@example.org.