his unexpectedly lyrical passage appeared in the introduction to my college biology textbook. An English major behind enemy lines, I was willing to take my poetry where I found it. Besides, it was a comforting way to think about the galaxy. When you frame our relationship to the stars this way, astronomy is a lot less like hard science and a lot more like genealogy.
And, with an estimated 5 billion trillion stars in the universe, it's one big family tree.
Fortunately, astronomy is more accessible than ever before. Observatory-caliber telescopes are available commercially, and the advent of digital cameras has made it possible for enthusiasts to pursue such erudite-sounding hobbies as astrophotography using supplies they pick up at the local Best Buy. Stargazers can buy telescopes with built-in Global Positioning Systems that allow them to key in the coordinates of a given celestial body and let the instrument do the rest. (And, yes, there's an "Astronomy for Dummies.")
Such technological advances are one reason that the line between professional and amateur astronomers can be pleasantly blurry. "That's what's so neat about astronomy," says Northern Virginia Astronomy Club outreach coordinator Bob Traube. "Because the sky is physically so far away, you're bound to do it from a distance. Amateurs are faced with the same obstacles as professionals."
And it can be hard to tell them apart. Something about the literal enormousness of the subject makes even experts unwilling to claim expertise. "I'm a professional astrophysicist, but an amateur astronomer," says Montgomery College professor and planetarium director Harold Williams, who earned a doctorate by computer-modeling star formation. (Both of the area's astronomy clubs, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club and National Capital Astronomers, include a mix of amateurs and professionals.)
Amateur astronomers -- an impossibly broad category that includes everyone from asteroid-hunters to variable star observers to eclipse-chasers -- play a more active role in the science than hobbyists in other scientific fields. Despite the vigilance of the Hubble Space Telescope, backyard astronomers are still discovering new celestial objects. In 1995, for example, amateur astronomer Tom Bopp of Arizona discovered a comet using a homemade telescope. Astronomer Alan Hale of New Mexico simultaneously discovered the same comet, and the rest is hyphenated history.
"Professionals are paid to look at the exciting stuff," says University of Maryland observatory director Elizabeth Warner. They often don't have the time or equipment access necessary to, say, monitor the varying brightness of a particular star, so they rely on observations made by amateurs. "It's grunt work, but it's important," says U.S. Naval Observatory public affairs officer Geoff Chester. "Astronomy is the one branch of science where amateurs can and do make contributions."
In recognition of this fact a section of the National Air and Space Museum's newest permanent exhibit, "Explore the Universe," highlights the work of amateurs. This month's featured hobbyist is self-described "hillbilly astronomer" Mike Fleenor of Knoxville, Tenn., who is literally a backyard astronomer -- he does astrophotography from a homemade observatory behind his house.
Not so long ago, of course, everybody was an amateur astronomer. The ability to read the night sky provided a means of practicing everything from navigation to divination; just looking up could tell you the time of night, the time of year and how to get home. These days, most of us can find the Big Dipper in a pinch.
Now we come inside -- to planetariums -- to see the outside. It is a modern irony that much study of the stars happens indoors in rocking upholstered seats. "Many visitors have never seen the Milky Way in real life," says National Air and Space Museum staff astronomer Sean O'Brien, who sends audiences home with star charts and an injunction to learn their way around the night sky. (The Milky Way in particular seems to cause confusion. "What's that blur on the screen?" one woman asked at a recent planetarium show.)
The Washington-Baltimore area has a high concentration of the science museums and colleges with which most planetariums are affiliated, as well as the only planetarium in the National Parks System -- the small facility at the Rock Creek Nature Center. With their dome ceilings and whirling, globe-shaped projectors, planetariums can approximate the shifting night sky while sidestepping the possibility of bad weather. They also answer the question, "Who uses those laser pointers, anyway?" People trying to trace the outline of Cassiopeia on the ceiling in the dark, that's who.
Every planetarium has its own personality. At the Arlington Planetarium, framed prints of the planets -- and, in recent weeks, a picture of Columbia astronaut and Yorktown High alumnus David Brown -- hang on dark blue walls. Piped-in New Age music plays before the show. The audience is mostly parents and kids, so public programs are apt to be punctuated by loud raspberries. At Montgomery College, in contrast, the planetarium looks like what it is, the office of a working astrophysicist. Family photos, ceramic mugs and "Star Wars" action figures vie for space with computer monitors, file cabinets and stacks of slide-tray boxes. "Physics Makes the World Go Round," reads a bumper sticker affixed to the wall.
The area's most sophisticated facility is the National Air and Space Museum's Einstein Planetarium, which boasts a 70-foot dome and a seating capacity of 223. In April the planetarium became the first in the world to use the SkyVision digital projection system. Its current show, "Infinity Express: A 20-Minute Tour of the Universe," was developed by the museum for the new system's debut. With a fast-paced MTV sensibility and narration by voguish actor Laurence Fishburne, "Infinity Express" is not your conventional planetarium show.
For starters, it lets the pictures do the talking. "We wanted to keep the imagery in the foreground -- to remove words rather than adding them," says planetarium director Cheryl Bauer. The approach works; the show eschews facts and figures for striking images, like those of Mars's vast Valles Marineris canyon system, which, at more than 2,500 miles long and up to five miles deep, is five times the size of the Grand Canyon. The special effect wizards at Industrial Light and Magic couldn't do a better job at stoking the public's appetite for astronomy.
"People have no idea what joy and wonder discovering the sky can bring," says Bauer.
See for Yourself
Indeed, there is much to be seen in even the least extraordinary night sky. The stars are a fine place to start, since it's difficult to locate moving objects such as planets or spot anomalies like comets unless you know where everything is supposed to be in the first place. That's where the constellations come in. Because the abstract visualization necessary for stargazing can get complicated -- let's see, the stars aren't moving, but they look like they are because the Earth is not only moving, but spinning as it moves -- easy-to-spot markers like Orion's belt are invaluable to beginners.
It's best to start simply, with the stargazer's only truly essential accessory: a red flashlight. (White light makes it hard for your eyes to adapt to the dark, so you'll be extremely unpopular if you show up at an observing session with a conventional flashlight.) You can buy red flashlights ready-made or modify an ordinary flashlight with red plastic, nail polish or brake-light repair tape.
The rest is optional -- at least for a while. Whether you hope to see a planetary conjunction or just know the Dogstar when you see it, you can do it without making a major investment. Most people aren't aware of how much you can see with the naked eye or using conventional binoculars. Not to mention the fact that binocular astronomy is a subspecialty unto itself.
When you're ready for a telescope, look before you buy. Groups like the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, which holds monthly observing sessions where members set up their telescopes for communal viewing, are great resources for those who want to check out a wide variety of equipment -- or learn to use the equipment they bought in haste.
You don't need to be the next Tom Bopp. "Discovery is relative," says the Naval Observatory's Chester. "If it's personally enlightening to you, it's a discovery."
PLANETARIUMS AND OBSERVATORIES
ARLINGTON PLANETARIUM -- 1426 N. Quincy St., Arlington. 703-228-6070. www.arlington.k12.va.us/curr_inst/planetarium. "The Cowboy Planetarium," a planetarium program narrated by humorist Baxter Black, runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 1:30 and 3 through March 30. "The Stars Tonight," a lecture on the current night sky by planetarium director Jonathan Harmon, is given on the first Monday of each month at 7:30. $2.50, $1.50 for seniors and children under 12.
WILLIAM M. BRISH PLANETARIUM -- 820 Commonwealth Ave., Hagerstown, Md. 301-766-2898. www.wcboe.k12.md.us/mainfold/curric/
planetarium/index.html. The planetarium hosts public programs at 7 each Tuesday evening when schools are in session and Thursdays in December. The current show, "Worlds in Motion," runs through March 18. $2, $1 for students, seniors and children under 12.
DAVIS PLANETARIUM -- Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St., Baltimore. 410-685-5225. www.mdsci.org/shows/davis/index.cfm. "The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," an introduction to the sky featuring characters from the children's show, runs daily at 1. "Star Bazaar," a program exploring different types of stars, runs Monday-Friday at 4, Saturday at 1:45, 2:30, 4 and 5 and Sunday at 1:45, 2:30 and 4. "The Sky: Live!," a live presentation about the current night sky, is presented daily at 3:15. Admission to the Science Center is $12 for adults, $11 for seniors, $8 for children 3-12, free for children under 3. There is no additional charge to attend planetarium shows.
EINSTEIN PLANETARIUM -- National Air and Space Museum, Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW. 202-357-1686 or 357-2000. www.nasm.si.edu/nasm/planetarium/Einstein.html. "The Stars Tonight," a discussion of the current night sky with a planetarium staffer, is presented daily at noon. $5. "Infinity Express," a voyage through the solar system narrated by Laurence Fishburne, shows daily on the half-hour (noon excepted) from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. $7.50, children and seniors $6. The planetarium presents monthly star lectures followed by telescopic observing; this month's presentation, "What Is the Zodiac?" with staff astronomer Sean O'Brien, is Feb. 22 at 6. No tickets required. The museum also hosts astronomy fairs in April and October.
MARYLAND SPACE GRANT OBSERVATORY -- Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy, fifth floor, Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus, 3400 N. Charles St., Baltimore. 410-516-6525. www.mdspacegrant.org/observatory.html. Observatory open house every Friday evening at dusk, weather permitting. Free.
MONTGOMERY COLLEGE PLANETARIUM -- 7651 Fenton St., Takoma Park. 301-650-1463. www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/planet. The planetarium is open from the last week in August until the Friday before Memorial Day. Harold Williams presents monthly planetarium programs at 7, usually but not always on Saturday. Upcoming topics are "The Rites of Spring, the Vernal Equinox" on March 19, "Black Holes, Gravity to the Max" on April 19 and "The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" on May 10. Free.
HOWARD B. OWENS SCIENCE CENTER -- 9601 Greenbelt Rd., Lanham. 301-918-8750. www.pgcps.pg.k12.md.us/~ ehbowens. Public programs are held at 7:30 on the second Friday of the month when Prince George's County Public Schools are in session. (Except the May program, which will be held on the third Friday.) The planetarium's Astronomy Day is scheduled for May 10 from 6 to 10. $4, $2 for students, seniors and children under 12.
CROSBY RAMSEY MEMORIAL OBSERVATORY -- Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St., Baltimore. 410-545-2999. www.mdsci.org/exhibits/observatory/index.cfm. The observatory hosts "Sungazing Sundays" every Sunday from 1 to 4 and "Stargazing Thursdays" every Thursday from 5:30 to 10, weather permitting. Science center admission includes "Sungazing Sundays"; admission to "Stargazing Thursdays" is free.
ROCK CREEK NATURE CENTER -- 5200 Glover Rd. NW. 202-895-6070. www.nps.gov/rocr/planetarium. "The Night Sky," a program for children 4 and older, is Saturday and Sunday at 1. "Night Sky to Freedom," a program for children 7 and older that explores how the Underground Railroad taught enslaved people to use the night sky as a compass, is Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday at 4. "Exploring the Sky" stargazing sessions in conjunction with National Capital Astronomers are held monthly from April through November; the sessions are held in Rock Creek Park near the Nature Center planetarium, in the field just south of the intersection of Military and Glover roads NW. The 2003 schedule will be posted soon on the planetarium Web site. Free tickets are available at the Nature Center a half-hour before showtime.
UNITED STATES NAVAL OBSERVATORY -- Massachusetts Avenue at 34th Street NW. 202-762-1438. www.usno.navy.mil. Tours of the observatory are offered on alternate Mondays at 8:30 and include a presentation on the observatory's history and timekeeping responsibilities as well as a chance to use the facility's 12-inch telescope with a staff astronomer. Tour passes must be reserved 4-6 weeks in advance by using an online request form or calling the number above. Free.
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND OBSERVATORY -- Metzerott Road, between Adelphi Road and University Boulevard, College Park. 301-405-6555. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse. The Astronomy Department holds a free open house on the 5th and 20th of each month (at 8 during winter and early spring) including a lecture, slide show and telescopic viewing. Upcoming programs include "The Spring Sky" with Elizabeth Warner on March 5, and "What Are Stars Made Up of and What Does That Tell Us?" with Suchitra Balachandran on March 20. The observatory may offer a class for amateur astronomers in summer 2003; details will be posted on its Web site.
GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER VISITOR CENTER -- Soil Conservation Road, Building 88, Greenbelt. 301-286-9041. www.gsfc.nasa.gov/vc/vc.htm. The Visitor Center is currently open by appointment only. Call Monday though Friday between 9 and 4 to speak with a representative.
INTERNET -- The Web is a great source of information and sky maps. (Word to the wise: You're supposed to hold them over your head, not out in front like road maps.) The magazines Astronomy and Sky & Telescope have sites that include how-to advice for beginners (astronomy.com and skypub.com, respectively). And at sites like heavens-above.com you can download star charts customized by date and location -- even if that location is Burkina Faso, Somalia, Kazakhstan or Oman.
NATIONAL CAPITAL ASTRONOMERS -- http://www.capitalastronomers.org. The club sponsors monthly "Exploring the Sky" sessions from April to November near the Rock Creek Nature Center (see listing above), as well as a free telescope-making class, which meets on Fridays at the Chevy Chase Community Center, 5601 Connecticut Ave. NW, from 6:30 to 9:30. Monthly meetings, which feature guest speakers, are at 3 on the first Saturday of each month (except in July and August) at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, Second Floor, 4805 Edgemoor Lane, Bethesda. Club members volunteer individually at the National Air and Space Museum and with other groups in the area.
NORTHERN VIRGINIA ASTRONOMY CLUB -- www.novac.com. In addition to tailored outreach sessions for groups, the club hosts astronomy events in the spring and fall and sponsors several public observing sessions each year at Crockett Park near Midland, Va., 15 miles south of Manassas. NOVAC also welcomes the public to its monthly meetings at 7 on the second Sunday of each month at Enterprise Hall, Room 80, on George Mason University's Fairfax campus.
2003 NOVAC public observing dates:
May 10 -- Astronomy Day Star Party.
June 21 -- Crockett Public Night.
Sept. 20 -- NOVAC Star Gaze.
Nov. 29 -- Crockett Public Night.
Dec. 13 -- Geminid Meteor Shower.
SKYWATCH -- Columnist Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.'s monthly celestial forecast and calendar of astronomical events appears on The Washington Post Metro section's weather page as close to the first of the month as possible.
SPACE TELESCOPE SCIENCE INSTITUTE -- Steven Muller Building, Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus, 3400 N. Charles St., Baltimore. 410-338-4700. www.stsci.edu/resources. The institute, which analyzes data from the Hubble Space Telescope, sponsors free public lectures by noted scientists the first Tuesday of each month at 8 in the STScI auditorium.
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND BALTIMORE COUNTY -- Physics Building, Seminar Room 401, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore. 410-455-2513. www.jca.umbc.edu/OpenHouse.html. The public can look through the largest public telescope in Maryland at an open house on the first Thursday of every month from 6 to 9; members of the university's Joint Center for Astrophysics will be on hand to answer questions. Free.
Nicole Arthur is a staff writer for Weekend.