In Focus Astronomy was invited to spend a second weekend at the American Prairie Reserve educating and stargazing with a multi-generational family of 16. How do you educate and entertain this unique group of grandparents, parents, and children - three generations of families? Easy - aliens! Silly? Yes. Entertaining? Yes. Educational? Absolutely.
On Friday we were supposed to do astronomy at the Buffalo Campground, but an intense lightning storm kept us inside. Instead, we took the opportunity to demonstrate to APR staff how to operate the 6” Orion Dobsonian telescope we donated! There is zero light pollution at the Enrico Education Center, so APR asked for our advice on a telescope to purchase to provide a way for any visitor to take full advantage of the extraordinary dark skies. Instead of providing the input, we provided the telescope!
Saturday’s partly cloudy skies presented an opportunity for solar astronomy. We observed the Sun using two instruments: our 14” Orion Dobsonian telescope outfitted with a solar filter, and a Coronado PST H-Alpha telescope. Using the Coronado, we caught glimpses of solar prominences stretching outward from the surface of the Sun. Although these prominences are small compared to the size of the Sun, they are often larger than the Earth. The display sparked tons of questions. Are solar prominences ever powerful enough to reach Earth? What happens if a Coronal Mass Ejection hits Earth?
One of the challenges of teaching astronomy is getting students to understand how they are related to the Universe. Back in 2013, Rebecca developed an activity for the Teton Science Schools to use as part of their place based educational programming. We had the family, children and adults alike, take part in the exercise. After discussing how animals adapt to local ecosystems, the students were tasked with designing their own alien, which could reside in one of four real environments within our Solar System: Venus, Io, Europa, or Ganymede. Each of these planetary bodies was chosen because of their interesting surface characteristics. The students had to draw, design, and explain to the group how their alien managed to survive in the chosen environment. Their only required adaptation was: how does your alien eat? The exercise allowed the children to practice their public speaking, critical thinking, and creative skills.
While setting up the telescopes for stargazing, we witnessed a gorgeous sunset. Unfortunately, the clouds that made the sunset spectacular made our night of stargazing challenging. Luckily, Jupiter and Venus shone brightly through the thin layer of clouds. Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto were all visible in their orbit around Jupiter, and the children were able to make the connection between their observations and the aliens they designed earlier.
Around 11:00 pm, the pale yellow of the waning gibbous moon rose above the horizon in an absolutely spectacular moonrise. After watching the edge break the horizon, we took turns watching through the telescope. The lunar maria provided a sharp contrast to the prairie grass and trees in the foreground. The few of us still observing may have been some of the only people in thousands of acres who watched the spectacle. Shortly after the spectacular moonrise, Mars followed suit along the ecliptic and blinked red and blue through the telescope. With Mars as our finale, our guests wished us well and we packed up for the night.
Every astronomer wants a perfect, clear night, but there is something satisfying about finding and observing objects in less than ideal seeing conditions. Though we could only naked-eye observe two stars and two planets, we were able to observe a few bright deep space objects through the telescope. It’s a nice reminder that no matter the conditions on Earth, the stars, nebulae, and galaxies out there continue to shine.