Aside from the moon and a few constellations, most people have a hard time pointing out much in the night sky. That is where the Glacial Lakes Astronomers and Stargazers Society (GLASS) comes in. GLASS holds a public viewing in the horse camp at Glacial Lakes State Park, south of Starbuck, once a month. The volunteers bring a variety of telescopes and binoculars for visitors to look through.
Most nights, they start the viewing a little before dark with a close-up glimpse of craters on the moon.
“We usually try to schedule nights when the moon isn’t full,” said Skorczewski.
“A full moon makes it hard to see the stars,” said Yorkovich. “Even the moon is better to look at when it’s not full.” Sunlight reflecting from a partial moon makes craters look more dimensional than they do during a full moon.
The first GLASS viewing I attended was in July. It had been rescheduled due to cloudy weather the week before, and the moon was nearly full. Amazingly, at the horse camp the moon was so bright that it cast shadows of the us similar to a streetlight in town. Haze from the earth’s atmosphere shimmered in telescopes pointed at the lunar surface. After everyone had a few looks at the bright moon through filtered lenses, the sky started clouding up.
John was hoping for a sucker hole (a short break in the clouds) a little before 10 p.m. because the Chinese space station, Tiangong-1, would fly overhead and a booster (space junk left in the atmosphere from a rocket launch) would also be visible around that time.
The cloud cover gave us time to talk about the sky. John and Mark answered all of our questions. Several books and star maps were on hand to help. John has a large National Geographic map of the moon from 1968, before man landed on it, that he displayed to help show us around the lunar surface before dark. John showed us the proposed landing areas from the Apollo program. Another part of that map showed the size of the Grand Canyon dwarfed by the size of a lunar canyon.
As clouds covered the moon, John mentioned that it looked like the famous photo called “Pillars of Creation.” The pillars are giant clouds of gas with stars being born in them. It was a group of photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 and put together into one breathtaking image. It shows ethereal clouds of gas in many colors with stars scattered around them in various stages of development. The gas and stars are 7,000 light years away in the Eagle Nebula.
Unfortunately, the clouds held tight, and no sucker hole was available to see Tiangong-1 or the booster.
Then someone spotted Saturn. Telescopes swiftly swung around, and it was a race to see the ringed planet before clouds ended the show again. Once the telescopes zeroed in, we got a chance to see the planet, its rings and a little speck of light to the right that GLASS volunteers said was the Saturnian moon, Titan. It was the real deal. We were actually seeing a moon and rings around another planet with our own eyes.
The bright moon and increasing cloud cover ended the show after about two hours. All of us went away happy with what we had seen.
“Sitting back in a lawn chair with just a pair of binoculars,” Yorkovich said, “is a great way to view the sky. You can see a lot with just binoculars, plus leaning back in a lawn chair helps to steady the binoculars when you are looking through them for a long time.”
Only use a flashlight with a red lens on it. This will preserve night vision and remember to not use headlights, just parking lights, near astronomers after dark.
A bundle of special equipment is available for serious amateur astronomers. Different kinds of telescopes. More powerful eyepieces. Filters to bring out different features like the red dot on Jupiter. Many, many books are available. Skorczewski, who works for a machining company, makes his own custom telescope mounts and other parts for his hobby.
For those interested in checking out the night sky, Skorczewski recommends starting with a field guide like National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky. He left his field guide on the hood of his truck when driving away one night and had to buy another one.
I attended another viewing in August. It started with about two dozen visitors, the most ever for GLASS. Saturn was visible again before the clouds came in, and most people left. Later in the night, the sky cleared up, and John saw the international space station pass overhead. Some of the campers who had left came back. Armed with a green laser pointer, John showed them more in the sky. The Ring Nebula (an exploded star) and a star cluster were both viewable in the telescope. That night was also near the peak viewing time for the Perseids, a meteor shower of debris from a comet. Every August the Earth passes through the Perseids. We saw a few meteors later that night when the clouds abated.
Yorkovich recommends trying to draw astromonical objects in a journal.
“My wife and I started drawing what we saw, but we don’t anymore,” said Yorkovich. “Even if you don’t keep up the journal, it is a good way to get started stargazing.”
A planisphere is also handy. It is a map for the sky and can be adjustable for time of year and time of night. GLASS volunteers make paper planisphere copies to pass out to visitors.
Some of the brightest stars in the sky, like Spica and Altair, are easy to pick out, showing up first at night and make good starting points for viewing. The Big Dipper is an asterism or group of stars in the constellation Ursa Major. Other constellations, like Orion and Cassiopeia (a “W” shape made of five stars), are also easy to start with.
“A good way to think of it is constellations are to the night sky what countries are to a map of the world,” said Yorkovich. Amateur astronomers find celestial objects by star hopping. Star hopping is a way to find objects in the sky using bright, easier-to-find stars as guides. Using two stars from the Big Dipper to find the North Star is star hopping.
To find a Messier object (M13), which is a globular cluster of stars, first look at the star that makes up the right shoulder of Orion and slide about one-third of the way down to the right hip star to find M13, a cluster of 300,000 stars first discovered by Edmond Halley in 1714. French astronomer Charles Messier cataloged M13 and dozens of other objects, now called Messier objects, that were getting in his way as he searched for comets in 1771.
Many amateur astronomers favor one type of celestial object. It could be planets, comets or Messier objects. Skorczewski once participated in a Messier marathon. While doing a Messier marathon, amateur astronomers try to view all of these objects in one night during March or April. The Messier list now goes up to 110 objects. To view all of them takes endurance, the first object becomes visible just as it gets dark, and the last ones are hopefully visible before the sun gets too bright in the morning.
Baylor Regional Park is home to the Minnesota Astronomical Society’s Onan Observatory and has several large amateur telescopes. Levy was one of the co-discoverers of the comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 a little over a year before it collided with Jupiter in July 1994.
Yorkovich lived in Virginia before moving to Minnesota. The light pollution in the more suburban area was not as good for stargazing as the clear sky over the horse camp. He visited with amateur astronomers in Virginia and was able to get his wife hooked on astronomy at the first event they attended.
Inquisitive adults and children are happily welcomed as long as they don’t run near the equipment and don’t touch the glass surfaces of the telescopes or binoculars. Visitors are encouraged to dress warm because it cools down as the night goes on and apply bug spray away from the viewing equipment.
GLASS volunteers print out free star maps to pass out from skymaps.com. They recommend skyandtelescope.com as a good website for amateur astronomy news and information. To find out when satellites or the International Space Station are going to be overhead use websites like heavens-above.com. The GLASS website, glass.glaciallakesmn.com, has more information to help get you started. Call Glacial Lakes State Park 320-239-2860 or check the GLASS website for dates and times of events. A state park sticker is needed to get into the park, but there is no cost to attend the GLASS viewings.