Sunday, February 01, 2009


Giving Back

Public outreach. There, I’ve said the dreaded words, muchachos. Not that all amateurs don’t like star partying with the public. For a few of our brothers and sisters, that is the raison d’être for amateur astronomy. Most of us? Not so much. Sure, we enjoy doing the occasional program for kids and/or parents, but putting on a travelling astro-show is hardly our sole interest.

Then there are the amateurs who pale when they hear “public star party” mentioned at the club meeting. The very idea of hordes of lollipop-sticky fingers desecrating their holy scopes gives ‘em the willies. Not unexpectedly, when the club undertakes a public program these outreach-a-phobics suddenly remember they have to work, attend a family wedding, or recall that that is the night they wash their hair.

There is nothing to fear from the public. I guarantee you can survive The Hordes with both gear and sanity intact. The tips that follow are designed to help you do just that; to ease your entry into the world of Public Astronomy, or, if you’ve had your share of disasters in the past as an individual or a group member, to prevent their recurrence. Why would I bother to try to convince you (and your club) to embrace the fine art of outreach? We need you. I know you’ve heard thisun before, many times, and are tired of hearing it, but kids (and uninitiated adults) are the future of our avocation, and exposing them to amateur astronomy via public outreach programs is how we bring ‘em in to our fraternity/sorority.

My attitude toward public programs? I fall in the middle group. Public outreach is not all amateur astronomy is to me, but exposing younguns to astronomy, amateur or otherwise, is clearly important to me or I wouldn’t have been teaching the art and science to undergraduates semester in and semester out for over a decade. Yeah, I enjoy the look of wonder on a young (or old) person’s face when they see Saturn for the first time, or behold the craters of the Moon for real, or just see a bright star in a telescope.

I’ve liked working with the lay-public from the beginning, if my reasons for that have changed a bit over the years. These days, well, I just enjoy turning people on to something cool. But when I was young what I savored was the feeling of competence I got from displaying my store of Special Knowledge. That feeling of—YES, I’ll admit it—POWER was what made my first public star party, for want of something better to call it, memorable.

My first time out with non-amateurs I didn’t even own a telescope, and would probably have been reluctant to say I was an amateur astronomer if anybody had known enough to ask if I were. The occasion when your old Uncle first stepped into the spotlight was the total Lunar eclipse of December 18, 1964. Alas, this mid evening eclipse coincided the Kingswood Methodist Church Youth Christmas Party Mama convinced me (coerced, more like) to attend.

As the festivities began, young Unk surprisingly found himself not as bored as he’d figgered he’d be. Mainly because of the presence of a group of giggling girls, and, specifically, one certain girl who was not, as he’d heretofore thought, silly, but suddenly fascinating. As 7 p.m. approached, the time when totality would begin to get underway, Li’l Rod did get a mite fidgety, howsomeever.

Somewhat reluctantly, I detached myself from the charming Miss Jitter Jones and approached one of the youth leaders, the spinsterish Emily Baldwin. I figgered she’d be a good candidate, seeing as how as she was at least a part time science teacher, having, I'd heard, substituted for the local junior high's 7th grade science teacher on the not infrequent occasions when that excitable soul came down with a bad case of The Vapors.

“Ma’m, you know there’s a total Lunar eclipse starting right now!” I’d expected to be shushed in her customary manner or given an all too dismissive “that’s nice,” but instead, a look of surprise and realization crossed her face, and she was, unbelievably, soon shooing all us youngfolk out the door for a look at what she called “nature’s wonders.”

Me? I just wanted to see the cotton-picking thing, I didn’t want to answer questions about it. But when my fellow partygoers began asking the “what” and “how” questions, Miss Emily quickly referred them to me. Either because she genuinely didn’t know the answers, or, as I suspect these days, she was an awfully wise woman who knew when to nudge one of her charges in the proper direction.

At first, I embarrassedly rattled off what little I knew: a Lunar eclipse occurred when the Moon passed behind the Sun and the Earth, that things had to line up just right for one to happen, and that, no, as far as I knew it did not portend the coming of the Endtimes Pastor Locke occasionally (in his defense, only very occasionally) talked about. Before I knew it, my embarrassment had turned to exultation. Was that a look of admiration a certain Miss Jones threw my way? I found myself in my element. I was The Authority. That felt good, and that feeling was maybe not a bad place to be for a kid who frequently wondered whether his obsession with the Great Out There wasn’t just a little weird.

Yeah, I had fun that night, and have had a lot of fun doing public astronomy over the years, but how do you and your club get to the place where you can have fun and not stress about what you’re gonna say when some kid asks you how much Jupiter weighs, or worry about what a frenetic five year old is gonna do to your ten thousand dollar AP refractor? You prepare. Before we begin, let me mention that we are talking organized public star parties here. Sidewalk Astronomy—setting up telescopes in a public place for random passerby—is a subject for a future blog.


First things first: where and when. Normally, I find it best to do a requested star party on the home turf of my “customers”—a school, a science museum, a church, whatever--and suggest you and your club do the same. Your audience will be familiar with the venue and so won’t have any trouble finding it and arriving on time. Occasionally, it may be impossible to do this—no open space, too many lights, other activities taking place. In those cases, I recommend neutral ground like a public park if after-dark use is permissible or can be secured.

Above all, I discourage inviting hordes of not-e’en-novices out to a distant dark site. That will strictly limit your audience in this day of two-career-scheduled-out-the-ying-yang families. And, remember, if something happens to a tot or a parent out there in the dark you and your club may be liable. If you have an in-town club site and insurance, that’s an option. I still tend to favor the use of your “client’s” place, however, and usually a spot that is open and shielded from lights can be found on almost any premises.

When? That depends on the sponsoring organization and your area and you. If you are working with schools, you’ll need to navigate around things like test days, teacher work days, and school breaks. Various regions have their own peculiarities, too. Down here in the Southland, many, many people subscribe to religious denominations that expect their unfailing attendance at Wednesday evening church services. Schedule your public do for a Wednesday night, and your attendance figures will be abysmally low. Don’t forget to take the needs of your club members into account as well. Like your customers, they have jobs and families. The last thing you want is ten gazillion excited kids and two telescopes.

All in all, I’ve had good luck with Thursday nights. Nobody likes to do much of anything on Mondays or Tuesdays. Even if you don’t live where Baptists abound, Wednesdays may be off-limits, as, for example, that’s a popular evening for night-classes at universities and a choice night for civic organizations to meet. Friday? Many parents ain’t gonna sign off on that, and your own members will likely rebel at sacrificing more than the occasional weekend. Finally, take a look at the good, ol’ Moon phase calendar. As we’ll discuss below, you want a nice Moon. But not too much Moon. Some groups will want to schedule you for a night when there is a full Moon in the sky, imagining that is the best time to look at Luna. Politely demur and explain the facts of the matter.


Now the work begins. Assuming you are doing this with your club and not as an individual, the first thing to do is get a rough idea of how many scopes will be set up for the event. That done (and don’t count on having every person who’s promised to show up actually show up), you can begin assembling, if you like, a list of objects. The most important thing here is that each member have some idea what she/he is gonna show the “audience.” Some groups leave this to individual telescope operators; some are more formal, assigning each operator a list. I tend to like the latter approach more and more as the years roll on. Having each scope on a different target, or at least some of the scopes on different targets tends to keep things moving along smartly if you’ve got a large crowd.

Most importantly, each scope operator should be equipped with the basic information about the things they will be viewing: how big, how far away, etc. I often write down the answers to questions I think I might be asked by guests large and small. After participating in public outreach and teaching astronomy for many years, I guar-ron-tee the little folk have a sixth sense when it comes to asking questions for which you don’t know/have forgotten the answers. It will make a much better impression on kids, parents, and the sponsoring organization if you and your fellow club members respond to Bobbie Sue’s earnest, “But how big is it, huh, Mister? How big is it, huh?” with a snappy, “Jupiter is 88,846 miles in diameter.” These being kids, having some cool facts on hand like “You can fit Earth in Jupiter’s Red Spot” is highly recommended.


As far as what to bring, just about any scope will do. Reassure your club's novices that they should not be ashamed to haul out their 60-mm refractor or 4-inch reflector. The audience will get just as big a kick out of these telescopes and be just as impressed by them as they will be by Bubba’s 25-inch Obsession giant. In fact, they may like the beginner scopes better. And some telescopes are better than others for public star parties. 

If at all possible, make sure the field will be well populated by telescopes that not only don’t require ladders (not recommended), but don’t even require footstools in order for the wee-est of the wee to reach the eyepiece. That means a bias toward SCTs and refractors rather than large – medium size Newtonians. If a tot has to sway on a stool or be held up to the eyepiece by a parent, she/he will usually not see a blessed thing. I also much prefer driven scopes. If you have to nudge to recenter objects for each customer, you will waste time, and most Dobs are easily moved off target by eager little hands, even if you’ve admonished their owner, “Don’t touch!”

The other half of the equipment equation is, as I mentioned at the get-go, that some amateurs are wary of letting their beloved telescopes be exposed to the depredations of the bubblegum brigade. There is some wisdom there, I reckon. If you’re serving a teenage audience, expect some mascara-caking on the eyepieces. If your scope is an open tube type, don’t ever leave it unattended: the little folk find it ineffably tempting, for some reason, to drop things—like a rock picked up off the ground—down the open tube. Once upon a time one of our club members caught a couple of brats spittin’—yes, spittin’—down his Newt-tube.

Never, ever leave your scope (of any kind) unattended while the public is onsite. Even if they can’t chuck something down the open end, those hand controller buttons may prove irresistible. Worse, a helpful parent may try to point your scope at something—with both declination and R.A. locks firmly locked. You wouldn’t think a grownup would dare do such a thing, but it happens. Telescopes seem to whisper “play with me” to young and old alike.

The above considered, some amateurs won’t bring their primary instrument and best eyepieces to a public star party. They have an “Outreach Scope,” one that’s either built like a tank or somewhat disposable for use with the younguns. Eyepieces? A brace of NON Naglers. Me? I used to do that very thing. I had a Coulter Odyssey f/7 Newtonian that I used along with some Paul Rini eyepieces at public events. It would have taken a nuclear weapon in the multi-megaton range to do much damage to the old thing. Then I began to feel a mite guilty. Oh, the images in the Coulter were purty good, but its long tube and lack of drive made it less than optimal for the kids. The Rinis? Again, good enough, but not really good.

I eventually decided the kids, the Future of our Hobby as I frequently preach to my fellow public star-partiers, deserved the best images I could give ‘em from a scope that was easy for them to use. The Coulter and Rinis went to live with my scopeless brother-in-law, and I now most often use a “good” C8 or C11 and TeleVues with the rugrats. As long as you keep your wits about you and an eye on your scope, the worst that is gonna happen is that you’ll maybe need to do a little eyepiece cleaning when you are done.

What Do You Look At

That will vary a little with the age of your audience, but it generally boils down to: the Moon, the planets, and bright stars. Frankly, you could hold a public star party and show your customers nothing but the Moon, and they would be perfectly content. Young and old like nothing better—and I mean nothing—than Moon Craters. That means, as hinted earlier, you shouldn’t even dream of scheduling an event on a night when there is not a good Moon in the sky. First Quarter is perfect.

The planets and, naturally and especially, Saturn are a close second to Diana. By planets, of course, I mean Jupiter and Saturn. They will impress way more than Venus, Mercury, or even Mars. Uranus and Neptune? Fuhgeddaboutit.

What else will they want? A bright star. Why? Don’t axe me, but after nearly five decades working with the public, I find the kids just want to see a simple bright star in the scope. Point at Sirus or Vega and you will get plenty of wows. How about the deep sky? If you’re working with older groups, sure, a bright Messier or three is appropriate, but don’t expect the little people to be impressed. They have a genuinely difficult time seeing deep sky objects in the eyepiece (you did too your first time), and will not care pea-turkey about looking at NGC Umptyquat no matter how much you like it.

Managing a Public Star Party

If you do as I recommend and hold your events at the facility of your client organization, most of the hard stuff—seeing cars get parked in the proper spots, pointing-out restrooms, arranging for security if that is required in your area—will be their responsibility. Do make sure your scope operators can answer a few questions along these lines, though: “Where are the bathrooms? Where are the water fountains (drinking fountains for you Yanks)? What time does the Armadillo Ridge Science Center close?” Mainly, you’ll just want to see things remain orderly at the scopes if there’s a big crowd. It’s not a bad idea to have a couple of members act as “traffic cops” instead of as scope operators: “This line is really long. Why don’t you folks step right over here; this telescope is looking at Saturn too.”

One thing I’m often asked is whether it’s a good idea to give some sort of introductory lecture/instructions/program before the observing begins. That’s up to you. I know some clubs go so far as to put on a whole formal slide-show/PowerPoint about the sky and observing it before firing up the telescopes. That is not a bad idea, I reckon, but if your audience is a young one, you may find it mostly a waste of time. In my experience, the small sprouts will be way too excited to want to look at your astrophotos of NGC 253 or sit still to listen to you explain what the “Local Meridian” is. They want to look at the Moon and Saturn. Now. If you are dealing with a large group, it might be wise to gather them up beforehand and lay down some ground rules: no running, no touching the scopes, don’t break in line, etc., etc., etc.

Have a Sense of Humor

If you have never done a public event, or have not done one in a long while, I think you will be in for a pleasant and memorable experience. Some of my best memories in amateur astronomy are of the huge public star parties my fellow amateurs and I conducted over the years during “special events” like Lunar eclipses and cometary visitations.

Nevertheless, you have to keep your perspective and your tongue in cheek to keep your sanity and hairline intact. Remember, your audience doesn’t know much about astronomy or the sky. Astronomy is not normally taught in U.S. secondary schools so their only exposure to the science will have been in brief “space units” in elementary/middle school general science curricula. Be prepared for innocent questions that will on occasion be so outlandish as to make your jaw drop:

“That isn’t Saturn, you’ve pasted a picture of Saturn to the lens.” This comes from parents as much as from kids. Look on it as a complement. They genuinely cannot believe your scope can produce such a wonderful image.

“I know Earth is a ball, but do we live on the inside or the outside of the ball?” This one was actually asked of me one Astronomy Day by a fairly normal looking individual. You would think that in the 21st century there would not be anyone who lacks the basic facts about the universe, but this sort of question (from grownups) is not at all uncommon. I’ve heard the Flat-Earth and Earth-Centered-Solar System are enjoying a renaissance in certain quarters. I believe it.

“Do we have to go outside to look at the stars?” I heard this from a harried Mom one stormy afternoon at a children’s science center after I’d told her we wouldn’t be able to observe unless the weather cleared. Sounds ridiculous, but it is really not. Many people are unclear, not just about the difference between astronomy and astrology, but between planetariums and telescopes. In other words, don’t laugh.

Then there are the things you hear (invariably from adults), that make you want to swear off public star partying forever. One common one I get from the adults and which I get real tired of is, “How much did your telescope cost.” I’m not sure why this annoys me; maybe it’s because the people who ask it would probably think it supremely bad taste if I were to ask them how much their automobile or wristwatch cost. I generally just smile and say, “Not that much in the larger scheme of things.” But I know they are really just asking, “I’m interested; can I afford to get involved?” and that is Good, so I am quick to follow with the information (often accompanied by a spare Orion Catalog) that they can start out with a perfectly wonderful telescope that costs less than two-hundred dollars.

Only once, I recall, have I come close to just Calling the Whole Thing Off. That was the time the club showed up (on a weekend night, I recall) to support the local “Exploreum” science museum’s astronomy program. All went well at first. We had a good turnout and plenty of scopes that were promptly and efficiently set up. Looked like it was gonna be a good night. After Club President Bubba informed the Museum staff person in charge that we were ready to go, however, I changed my mind about that.

Her response was, “Great. Now, if all your members will just walk around to the front and buy their tickets, we can get started.” She did change her tune rather quickly when it became clear that we were not buying tickets for our own show, but were preparing to break down the gear and leave. The hundred or so of her eager young customers already standing in line for a look through our telescopes musta changed her mind. There was palpable tension between us and the museum staff for the rest of the evening though, unfortunately.

Yeah, You gotta take the good with the bad in the public astronomy game. But I urge you to do just that. It is mostly all good. Sometimes oh-so-very-good. Like the time the young mother struggling to shepherd her flock of younguns took a long look at Saturn through my scope, and, when she obviously reluctantly pulled her eye from the eyepiece, turned to me and said, “Oh, it’s so beautiful, THANK YOU!” The capper was that even in dim light I could see the tears on her cheeks.

2020 Update

I still very much support public outreach by amateur astronomers. I haven't actually done any in years, though. That's thanks to the accident I suffered last year, for one thing. And also due to the fact that for a number of reasons I won't go into here, I finally had to sever my relations with my local astronomy club. Also, though this may sound a little selfish, I spent over 20 years showing the sky to the public. Now, it's someone else's turn. That said, I, again, think it is a fine and noble thing.

The closest I get to this sort of thing these days is when I can set up the little Astro-Tech AT66ED at one of the truck stops. As you said, I find if they can see the Moon and Saturn, they are happy. A few like the way M42 looks also. One fellow actually had heard of it!
Unfortunately, a lot of times what I hear is "what's the point?" But I keep setting up, and occasionally, I think I make a convert.
As usual, enjoyed your story.
Since my public outreach scope (and planetary scope, and light bucket, and...) is an Orion XT6, I love the "how much does it cost" question. I shoot back, "How much do you think?" So far no one has guessed under eight hundred bucks and one guy guessed eight to nine thousand! I love being able to tell people that they can get a nice big capable scope for about the same price as taking the family to an amusement park or a concert.

I know that even if we can give encouraging answers the "how much does it cost" question is a bit sideways to the point we're trying to make. I sometimes take my 10x50 binoculars mounted to a cheap camera tripod with an angle bracket, a hex nut, and wing nut, and people seem to like that almost as much as looking through a scope.

Mostly I love getting to blow people's minds. Last year one woman literally screamed and leapt out of the seat when she saw Saturn for the first time (I park a folding chair next to the dob for those who want to take a minute, and for the wee ones). I will remember that for as long as I live.
Our local astronomy club down here in SWFL has a good response to Solar Observing. We regularly do a day each year out at the Manatee park when they have a Discovery Day with events for the whole family. We have some scopes set up with whitelight filters, a Lumicon prominence filter, a PST and someone brings out a higher end Coronado scope. The response has been great and we are high on the list of things to do there. Someone usually can find Venus or Jupiter and if the moon is up, we get it in. People are surprised that one can observe planets in the daytime. I usually take 2 C-8's, one whitelight and one using the Lumicon. This year we did 2 weekends in a row, one at the Manatee Park (we also did a night at the local Girl Scout camp immediately after the manatee event, a long but very rewarding day) and another at an event held as part of the local Edison Festival of Light that included the local science fair. Great response, and we made contacts with people that want us to come and do programs for them.
I like doing the outreach programs as much as going to a dark sky site and observing. (I got my start back in high school doing public showings at the local college observatory, so I am a little biased.) :)

Equipment can be simple as you said, my wife actually brought me out a Meade 4450 she found at a garage sale that morning to the manatee event. It was nice as people asked how much the scopes cost and I could point to it and say $37.00! I cleaned it up and took it the next week to the Edison event, and people loved looking through it at the moon.

We also do a number of school related nights during the year and they are big hits with the kids and their families.

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