The best thing about astronomy is that it’s free. It costs nothing to look up to see the stars and be amazed.
And seeing planets and stars up close with a telescope is even better.
The San Antonio Astronomical Association is among several local astronomy activities available to the public, quick trips to space that I really enjoy.
Each Wednesday night, SAAA club members host “star parties,” setting up their telescopes at Leon Valley’s Raymond Rimkus Park. Guests wander from scope to scope, peering through viewfinders and enjoying a quick trip to the moon, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.
Star party-goer Celeste Arredondo, 22, attended her first such event Nov. 30, witnessing a special cosmic lineup that night.
“I am totally mesmerized,” Arredondo said. “Everything is breathtaking.”
Arredondo said she keeps up with NASA by visiting their app. Social media is packed with images of “star nurseries,” or nebulas, the neighboring galaxies of our Milky Way galaxy and distant planets, that she said spur her interest in astronomy.
“And just the colors! It is so beautiful to look at,” she said. “I cannot comprehend all of the possibilities out there.”
My own curiosity is continually piqued by space because it is no “open-and-shut” case. It poses endless questions, its mysteries deep enough to keep us curious for a lifetime.
My father built his own telescope when he was a young man, and when I tell that to astronomy buffs, they’re full of awe. I didn’t know building your own “scope” was that cool!
A friend introduced me to star parties in 2005, and I have attended them since.
Last December’s debut of the James Webb Space Telescope had a huge media launch as it was sent into space. It’s been beaming back crystal-clear images of space from over 13 billion years ago. Its mission is to show us the first stars and galaxies that formed, in order to help us study every chapter of the history of our universe.
San Antonio Astronomical Association member James Golucke estimates that 300 people showed up to their star party at the end of November at Phil Hardberger Park.
“I had a counter, and I counted 85 people coming to look through my scope,” he explained.
Golucke says images from the James Webb telescope have piqued public interest in space, also part of its job.
“James Webb got people focusing on what is out there,” he said. “The more people see these guys that do astral photography, they think, ‘Is this really out there?’ And it really is out there!”
He also likes getting out of the house into the night’s fresh air.
“To me,” he says, “it’s soothing.”
SAAA members had about six telescopes tilted upward that Wednesday night, Nov. 30. All eyes were on Jupiter and three of its 80 moons next to our moon, with Saturn on the moon’s other side. Across the sky was Mars.
Back and forth the scopes went, to capture this unusual sight.
The heavenly bodies looked “lined up,” but the moon is actually a mere 238,900 miles away while Saturn, when it’s closest to Earth, is some 746 million miles away.
Vladimir Varchuk, originally from Ukraine, moved to San Antonio seven years ago for a job.
“I have been into astronomy about five years,” he said. “I was always interested in that.”
Varchuk joined SAAA to distract himself from his fears and worries about family members back home.
“It is a cool hobby but again, it is not for everybody,” he said. “You have to be patient. It is not like something that’s fast. For example, to take one picture of some object deep in the sky, you need to spend one night, or three nights, on one object.”
A good telescope costs in the hundreds of dollars. And they can have the same fate as a stationary bike: parked in the guest room and neglected, or standing all alone on the balcony. Like any hobby, people start out gung-ho, then eventually that excitement fades until it becomes the occasional look at the moon.
So star parties let telescope owners use their scopes to introduce astronomy to others.
There are plenty of other astronomy activities to see and learn about the stars, like at UTSA’s observatory nights several Fridays a month at their Curtis Vaughan Jr. Observatory.
During the school year, on every first Friday of the month, the observatory holds First Friday Stargazing, while on every third Friday, they host Friday Nights Celestial Lights. That schedule will resume around when school does, on Jan. 17.
San Antonio College’s Scobee Planetarium & Scalan Observatory also has weekly Friday night shows. There’s a 6:30 p.m. show for families, and there’s a live presentation at 8 p.m., called “The Sky Tonight.” Then a movie premieres at 9:30 p.m. Closed for Christmas break, Scobee Planetarium presentations will resume after Jan. 6.
A May viewing of a lunar eclipse, a “blood moon,” atop a San Antonio College parking garage drew crowds of people and their telescopes.
The San Antonio Astronomical Association holds their star parties every week. In winter, they start about 6 p.m. The rest of the year, it’s anytime past sundown. The only times they don’t meet are when skies are too cloudy for viewing.
As SAAA puts it, “Sharing our knowledge of the cosmos has always been the core principle of the San Antonio Astronomical Association. Many of our members are avid astronomers and are very enthusiastic about the hobby. Each year we hold several public observing sessions to help you learn more. You do not need to be a member of the club or own any astronomical equipment to attend. All you need is an interest in the wonders of the Universe.”
And from my experience, that’s all you need to bring.