This column comes to you from the Eldorado Star Party where I'm enjoying the wonderfully dark skies of west Texas with nearly 200 other stargazers. Organized by volunteer amateur astronomers, the week-long event takes place every fall on the X-Bar Ranch Nature Retreat between the small towns of Eldorado and Sonora.
ESP (www.texasstarparty.org/eldorado.html) is one of several annual, week-long star parties held in this part of the country. Another is the Okie-Tex Star Party held each fall at Camp Billy Joe in the far western part of the Oklahoma panhandle. Okie-Tex (www.okie-tex.com) is a really long drive from just about everywhere, but it's remarkably dark skies attract some 400 stargazers.
The Texas Star Party, held every spring since the 1970s, is the granddaddy of the region's star parties, attracting some 500-600 stargazers from across the U.S. and beyond. TSP (www.texasstarparty.org) takes place at the Prude Ranch in the Davis Mountains of far west Texas and offers superb dark skies at an elevation of 5,000 feet.
An additional attraction of TSP is its proximity to the nearby McDonald Observatory, a world class research facility operated by the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to its three huge research telescopes, a terrific visitors center features daily indoor exhibits, programs and solar telescope viewing, as well as evening star parties every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night of the year.
Many public parks -- state and national -- are taking note of the value of dark skies. Some national parks, like Texas' Big Bend in far west Texas (my favorite), are redesigning park lighting to preserve their natural dark skies. Pedernales Falls State Park in Central Texas is constructing an outdoor Star Theater specifically for star parties.
Even private organizations are responding, such as the non-profit Three Rivers Foundation for the Arts and Sciences (www.3rf.org) with its facility near Crowell in north central Texas. Open year-round, 3RF hosts public star parties, educational events for school children, teacher training workshops, and other programs.
The major attraction of these rather remote star party sites derives from the sad fact of increasing light pollution. As our urban areas sprawl and spread light into formerly rural areas, dark skies are increasingly difficult to find. Even so, stargazing is not impossible nearer urban areas; we're just limited in how much we can see. So if it's not feasible for you to visit any of these far-away sites,inquire around -- there might be something in your area as many astronomy clubs offer public star parties, some even within cities.
• Sky Calendar
* Nov. 15 Mon. evening: The Moon is near bright Jupiter.
* 17 Wed. morning: The Leonid meteor shower peaks with best viewing in the 2-3 hours between moonset and dawn.
* 21 Sun.: The full Moon is called Frosty Moon, Beaver Moon, and Snow Moon.
* Dec. 1 Wed. morning: The crescent Moon is to the right of Saturn with the star Spica and brilliant Venus below in the east; the Moon is nearer Venus the next morning.
• Naked-eye Planets. Brilliant Jupiter, high in the southeast in the evening, sets by 3 a.m. Saturn rises three hours before the Sun and is well up in the east at dawn.
• Astro Milestones. Nov. 20 is the birthday of Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), American astronomer for whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named.
Stargazer appears every other week. Paul Derrick is an amateur astronomer who lives in Waco. Contact him at 918 N. 30th, Waco, 76707, (254) 753-6920 or email@example.com. See the Stargazer Web site at stargazerpaul.com.