Austin Under the Stars

Last night, the Austin Astronomical Society and Friends of Austin Plantetarium hosted their bi-annual Austin Under the Stars event at St. Stephen's school.  This was, by far, one of the coolest things we have done all summer! 

Between twenty and thirty amateur astronomers brought out their scopes to share with the public in this completely free event.  And while all those involved may be amateurs and hobbiests, the event was top-notch.  The astronmers were well-informed, helpful and patient.  The event was extremely well set up and organized.

We arrived at the start of the event for some solar viewing.  AAS handed out special sunglasses that allowed the kids to look directly at the sun.

Ten or so astronomers had fitted their telescopes with a special filter that allowed viewers to look directly at the sun. 

We see the sun everyday, but today we got to see it in an entirely new light... with sun spots and solar flares that were miles in height!

A scale model of the solar system.
The sun is located in the
 white tent far in
the background!
AAS had also set up a scale model of the solar system, with balls of varying shapes to indicate the size of each of the planets.  We found Earth first (recongnizable by its rotating moon), and then found Mercury, Venus and even Mars.  But where was Jupiter?  Waaay out in center field of the nearby ballfield.  We, of course, had to run out to inspect Jupiter, and then returned to find the remaining planets.  It gave the kids a great sense of how large the solar system is, and how small we are in it!

We then headed inside the gymnasium where the Austin Planetarium had set up their mobile planetarium.  We were given a fifteen minute discussion on some of the basic constellations (just perfect in length for children), and then they showed some movie clips on their circular screen. 

When we returned outside, there was  a lull in the events.  The sun had set, so there was no longer any solar viewing, but the North Star had not come out yet (required for most astronomers to calibrate their scopes).  So the kids just played in the field for a bit. 

Around 9 o'clock the stars started to appear, and in another ten minutes most of the astronomers had calibrated their scopes and found something amazing to show us.  We saw the Double double star - two stars close together, that, when viewed, you realize are actual two pairs of double stars.  We saw Saturn, which is always amazing because it looks, well, just like you expect Saturn to look like from photos - but there it is in real life!  Probably the coolest thing we saw was the ring nebula, which was sort of small and dark, but when you learned what you were looking at, and how far away it was, was *really* cool.

AAS had set up a passport program, listing twelve items for the kids to find.  Kids who found all twelve could put their name in a bucket to participate in a random drawing for a telescope.  The kids enjoyed looking through all of the different scopes, talking to the astronomers, and getting their passports signed. 

Unfortunately, it was past 10pm when the yawns indicated we had to go.  We had only found about six of the items, but the astronomers very kindly congratulated us on what we found, and allowed the kids to enter their names anyway.

Overall, this event was totally amazing, both in what we go to see, and how well organized it was.  I think  this event will continue to top our Top 50 list!

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