Despite the threat of clouds, more than 100 people enjoyed an educational and entertaining evening on Saturday, November 19, as Blanco State Park hosted a “Stars in the Park” event. As if on cue, the clouds that were present all day disappeared just in time for the long-anticipated event to have a clear sky full of brilliant stars.
Held near the park’s pavilion, attendees from surrounding Hill Country towns as well as from Austin, San Antonio, New Braunfels, and beyond, were first treated to an orientation to astronomy and how to properly view the heavens through a telescope. Using a computerized planetarium program called Stellarium (free download at www.stellarium.org) Blanco area resident John Watson gave an on-screen demonstration of the evening’s sky so that attendees would have an idea of what they later would be viewing through the telescopes.
Highlighting on the screen the collection of stars known as the Pleiades, or the “Seven Sisters,” he asked the night’s “Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question” – How do you say Pleiades in Japanese? The answer – Subaru, as in the car company. Subaru, attendees were informed, also puts the Pleiades star cluster on the grill of each of their vehicles as the company symbol.
During the orientation presentation, one Winter Texan from rural Minnesota asked why the stars up in the northern woods seem closer than they are here in the Texas Hill Country. John Watson explained that while Blanco does have relatively dark skies, we still suffer from light pollution and sky glow from nearby cities. This is what makes the stars appear to be dimmer in Blanco than in rural Minnesota or the Big Bend area of Texas. Still, compared to Austin or San Antonio, Blanco’s dark skies afford viewing of thousands of nighttime objects that simply cannot be seen in those urban areas.
Stargazers were able to look through at least eight telescopes provided by the Austin Astronomical Society, the Hill Country Astronomers, and the Wimberly Astronomers.
Jupiter, with its wide bands of clouds and its four bright moons, was clearly visible as were several galaxies, nebulas, and star clusters.
Several of the astronomers brought powerful laser pointers that shot many thousands of feet into the air. They were able to point out Polaris (the North Star), Sirius (the brightest star in the night sky), and many other objects. A highlight came when, to the “Oohs and Aahs” of the crowd, three lasers simultaneously pointed to a satellite passing hundreds of miles overhead.
Blanco State Park Interpretative Ranger Mary Alice Partain stated, “We are delighted with the turnout for this event. Our sincere thanks goes to these three great astronomy clubs, the Friends of Blanco State Park, the Blanco Chamber of Commerce, and Westcott Graphic Printing for their support of this event. We hope to make this a regular part of the park’s interpretative offerings throughout the year and plan to make the next one even better!”