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Got Milky Way?

Low-desert campers can join astronomy buffs to search the dark skies.

September 16, 2007|Hugo Martín | Times Staff Writer

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK — The sun had set behind a 30-foot sandstone mountain when a short, stocky man with a Brooklyn accent addressed a crowd of about 75 people standing in a parking lot near the Hidden Valley picnic area at Joshua Tree National Park. Behind him, a cloudless, darkening sky stretched over a flat sea of sand, Joshua trees and rust-colored boulders.

As the recording secretary for the Andromeda Society of the Morongo Basin, Sam Davidson assumed the role of master of ceremonies for the evening, delivering ham and wry.

"Do you know why the sun is like bread?" he asked the gathering crowd, including about a dozen children. "They both rise in the yeast and set in your vest."

When the last light faded, the crowd turned its attention to the evening's main event. A nearly full moon, silvery and brilliant, hung in the western sky, with Venus shining just below it like a jeweled earring.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 23, 2007 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Moon: A Sept. 16 article about a stargazing party in Joshua Tree National Park described a nearly full moon in the western sky. In fact, it was a crescent moon backlighted by the reflection of light off the Pacific Ocean.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Moon: An article in the Sept. 16 Travel section about a stargazing party in Joshua Tree National Park described a nearly full moon in the western sky. It was a crescent moon that was backlighted by the reflection of light off the Pacific Ocean.

As more stars and planets sprang from the darkness, a handful of amateur astronomers aimed their telescopes at the shimmering objects. The night air was warm and the mood festive.

"Wow!" said an 8-year-old boy, peering at Venus through a telescope.

"Incredible!" said a young woman, peering at Saturn through another telescope. "I can see the rings."

As star parties go, the Joshua Tree bash was an undisputed success. The spring skies were clear, the telescopes abundant, the light pollution minimal and the crowds, especially the kids, enthusiastic.

The Joshua Tree event was my third star party but the first I had attended with my 8-year-old daughter, Isabella, a fan of Nick Jr. TV, iPods and an online computer game called Neopets. But I had no doubts that she would enjoy star parties too, if only because it meant being outdoors long past her bedtime. I knew these monthly get-togethers were educational, family friendly and, best of all, free. Drinking and boisterous behavior are discouraged at star parties.

In fact, when a couple of rowdy teenagers spat curses during the Joshua Tree party, an older astronomy buff called out, "Watch your language. We have families here." The teens apologized.

U.S. star parties were born in 1920 when a group of amateur telescope makers met in Springfield, Vt., to craft some of the devices. A few years later, the group of 15 men and one woman returned to test them.

It became a regular event, and today, Springfield is the site of Stellafane, one of the nation's biggest (more than 2,000 people attended last year) and most celebrated star parties, spawning a proliferation of fests that grew with each new conquest of space.

Southern California alone is home to more than 20 astronomy clubs, most of which host monthly star parties throughout the year, weather permitting. In the last few decades, light pollution -- the excessive light from cities that obscures night skies -- has pushed astronomers away from metropolitan areas and farther into the "dark sky country" where visibility is better. As a result, most of the best star parties are also camp-outs in desert campgrounds or national parks.

At the Joshua Tree party, Davidson started his presentation about 30 minutes before darkness fell.

He talked about the history of astronomy, the distance to the nearest solar system and the origins of the word "planet" (Greek for "wanderer.")

While he talked, astronomy buffs assembled telescopes along the parking lot's sidewalk. A few visitors unfolded beach chairs between the telescopes. A squadron of tiny bats crisscrossed the sky.

"Where's the Milky Way?" my daughter asked Davidson. The sky was not yet dark enough to see what, under prime conditions, looks like a strip of glowing mist overhead, he said.

Once darkness blanketed the desert, we moved from telescope to telescope, eyeing the celestial sights.

The glowing rings of Saturn spun at an angle in the sky, as seen through a 13-inch Dobsonian, pointing up like a huge cannon.

Another telescope, this one connected to a digital tracking system, was pointed at M13, one of the most visible globular clusters in the northern sky. In the lens, the star cluster looked like a sprinkling of diamond dust on black velvet.

Davidson and a few others wanted to see Jupiter near the eastern horizon, but our view was blocked by a stand of towering boulders. A group of us walked to the far end of the parking lot to see past the boulders. When we arrived, we found another group of amateur astronomers with telescopes trained on the eastern sky.

Among the cluster of telescopes, a group of about five kids was sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, huddled around a 15-inch TV screen. The screen was connected to a digital telescope pointed at M101, a pinwheel galaxy with spiral arms. The lights of the swirling galaxy filled the glowing screen. The kids looked as if they were expecting a spaceship to zoom out of the screen.

After bidding Davidson good night, I returned with my family to our sandy campsite where we roasted marshmallows over a campfire before crawling into our tent.

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