Challenger Center throws an interstellar star party

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2008

Ever wondered what color Saturn's rings are or why Sirius is nicknamed the "Dog Star?" Want to learn why some stars are red while others are blue or yellow? The Challenger Learning Center of Alaska is inviting the curious to bend an eye to a telescope and gaze into a sky pockmarked with stars.

The Challenger Center wants to open up the night sky to community members of all ages at 7 p.m. Friday. Weather permitting, Challenger Center volunteers will point out the major winter constellations and stars, give folks a closer look at the planets that are out and show how a telescope works. Community members also may get a chance to peer into a nebula.

"Hopefully, the weather will be good so (we can) see something and get people interested in astronomy and looking at the stars," said Kathy East, assistant lead flight director at the Challenger Center.

If it's cloudy, East said the Challenger Center will hold an indoor presentation on the constellations. "(We'll) see whatever we can that night. We should be able to see maybe two (planets), nebulas, stars."

The star party will be held in the parking lot away from the lights of the Kenai Spur Highway. East said the Challenger Center will be able to turn off the parking lot lights to allow for maximum darkness and optimum viewing conditions. Four telescopes will be available and viewers are welcome to bring their own telescopes and binoculars.

"The two that I have (are) 4-inch Newtonian telescopes," East said. "We also have a Celestron. It's a shorter telescope so you can see things (within) a shorter distance. It also has an auto-finder so you can tell it what star you want to point to. It saves you the frustration of finding it then again that's also part of the fun."

Viewers will be able to count the stars in Orion's belt, view its two brightest stars, Rigel and Betelgeus, as well as spot the constellation's nebula. Challenger Center volunteers also will be able to point out other constellations such as Cassiopeia and Cepheus and show why the Big Dipper's double stars, Mizar and Alcor, are nicknamed the "cub scout stars."

"We'll talk about star maps and sky maps so people can see how to use those and how to find those," East said. "(We'll talk about) how the telescopes work."

East, a former high school physics teacher from Utah, became hooked on astronomy when the officials at her school asked her to teach it.

She bought her first telescope and joined the Salt Lake Astronomy Club. When she moved to Alaska, she joined the Chugach Star Gazers, an astronomy club based out of Anchorage, and she said she's interested in setting up a local astronomy club here on the peninsula.

One of East's favorite aspects of astronomy is archeo-astronomy. She said one of the things that fascinates her the most about astronomy is learning how people thousands of years ago were able to predict when the next full moon would be or chronicle the equinoxes and solstices without the help of a calculator or computer or even a telescope.

"It is amazing they were able to do all that and they were very accurate about it," East said, adding that she would be glad to tell folks the stories behind each of the constellations.

The star party will end around 9 p.m. Friday, East said, and if it's successful she'd like to host more.

"I would love to do this on a more regular basis," she said. "(And) we can certainly (form) a group that's interested in astronomy."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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