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Sidewalk Astronomers in Death Valley 2014
by Peggy Walker 

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For the past 45 years the Sidewalk Astronomers have gone to where the people are…….. as John Dobson would say.  John’s vision to include Death Valley’s phenomenal geological history and the dark sky….. has placed Death Valley National Park as a must see spot.  John deserves such a well spring of thanks for starting a great legacy of connecting the skies and the national parks that warehouse these beautiful settings. 

 

This year the Sidewalk Astronomers carried on his tradition and partnership with the rangers at Furnace Creek Visitor Center.  This year, the outreach was conducted by Donna Smith, George Willis, Bill Nuygen, Rick and Peggy Walker.  They all assembled on December 26th at Donna’s flower shop Samuel’s Florist in Burbank and packed the scopes and other essentials for the trip.  Driving instructions were reviewed and off to the races they went.

 

A quick stop was made at a grocery store in the Mojave Desert for lunch and food stuffs, and back on the road again.  Once in the park, the drive in is so overwhelming with all the beautiful – natural geologic sites to take in.  The group arrived about 3:30 pm and checked in with the rangers at Furnace Creek Visitor Center and the set up site was arranged at that time.  After checking in with the hotel and a quick dinner the group set up for the first star party.

 

The rangers at Furnace Creek were ready for the event and set up red lights on the walk ways, had blockades over the non walk ways and to direct foot traffic to the telescopes.  The rangers gave their talk in the auditorium, and the parking and building lights were turned off.  The public came through the visitor center most of the night for the program and to get away from the cold.   Visitors of the park came through almost non-stop til abut 10:00pm.  But not always did have one late night.

 

The Sidewalk Astronomers were joined by an amateur astronomer from Ohio who volunteers every year at this time at the visitor center.  The daytime temperatures in the sun ranged in the 50s to the 60s which was nice for conducting outreach – not too hot and not to cool.   The group would set up solar scopes at both entrances to the visitor center and averaged 500 + people during the 10:00 to 4:00 set up time.  Buses would drop off the many visitors right in front of the entrance and scopes and surprisingly not every one would venture over for a look.  (what is wrong with these people!!)  But 85% did which had the astronomers with little to no down time.  Of course every once in a while, someone would say, “Is something special going on today”, and Rick Walker would reply, “Yeah, You!!  Wanna look at the sun?”  The visitors had a variety to look through, a Coronado, a Lunt, a filtered Mede scope and of course, John’s solar scope.  (his only true Dobsonian telescope he would say…)  As they would see the sun, the crew encouraged the visitors to come back to see the cosmos.

 

The guests were so varied and friendly and were from all over the world – just who came to spend their holiday at Death Valley.  Many have made this journey their yearly pilgrimage due to John and his talk on astronomy.  On Saturday night, the Sidewalk Astronomers were scheduled to give the nightly talk instead of the rangers.  So Peggy Walker spoke on ancient astronomy which took the international visitors on an astronomical, global talk.  After her presentation, many stuck around to ask questions. The visitors were encouraged to head to the parking lot where the rangers set up their telescopes along with the sidewalk astronomers.  Even though the nightly temps were in the mid to high twenties and low thirties… the guest enjoyed the wonderful sights of the Milky Way band, Orion Nebula, Owl Cluster, Double Cluster, Andromeda, Comet Lovejoy, Mars, Jupiter, and of course, the Moon.

 

One morning a young man commented to his friend, ah that scope is “make-shift” and he chuckled.  Peggy who was manning John’s solar scope design…… replied, “No, this is not make-shift, but rather an intelligently designed and engineered solar scope.  She continued to talk about the two-way glass, the welders glass, and the glass plate at the end that allowed 80% of the light out the end of the scope.  This response evoked quite a response from the other visitors in line.

 

Rick had a young man come and go throughout the morning to inquirer about how to get started in the hobby of astronomy.  He covered the type of scopes and even encouraged him to consider a pair of binoculars to get started.  He thanked Rick for his time and information and he came back not only for the night sights but to check out the various telescopes. 

 

At days end, usually about 10:00pm, the scopes would be put away and all would stat over the next day.  The thirty minute drive to the Amargosa Opera House would take the group from a 100 feet below sea level up to 3,000 elevation at the opera house.  The accommodations are historic in nature since that is where the workers stayed during the glory days of mining borax with the 20 mule team.

 

On Sunday night the ranger came to thank us for a great event and a conversation got started about how to improve these events.  Peggy suggested that they include some binoculars in the gift shop as well as a couple of books on astronomy in their gift shop.  She also talked about accommodating handicapped individuals which the ranger said they have been tasked with for 2015.  To make the park more accessible.

 

In total between the morning solar outreach and the nightly star parties, the group plus volunteer, and rangers averaged about 1,200 people through the course of the day and night.  It is a great event to host, due to its beautiful scenery and welcoming rangers.  Anyone who loves outreach and national parks, should do this at least once in their amateur astronomy career.

 

For more information on how you can join us for 2015, or directions to build your own “make shift” Dobsonian Solar Scope, please email sidewalkastronomers@earthlink.net


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