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August 24, 2015

Astronomy, the Cosmos and the Desert.

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by Hilary Sloane

The High Desert offers dark skies filled with meteorites, the milky way, constellations, and deep space objects that inspire visitors to make the journey and artists to create. It’s not hard to imagine when you’re standing outside in the warmth of the summer (transitioning to fall) months and stare up at an unpolluted night sky.

The National Park Service (NPS) dedicated to protecting and sharing, what the NPS calls “natural lightscape,”  maintains a ban on light pollution in the Joshua Tree National Park. Natural Lightscapes exist when artificial lighting is absent. According to the U.S. National Park Service website, it is estimated that only around 10 percent of the population of the United States can see the night sky in its natural state. 

The park is the perfect place to perch on a rock or bring a mat, and watch the stars dance around you and let your mind drift. The universe invites you to explore its vastness and discover it’s beauty. On a dark night you can see thousands of stars without a telescope. Even the Andromeda galaxy, which is 2.5 million light years away, is visible. It’s amazing to stand there in the quiet of the night and suddenly become aware that you’re part of this universe.

The "Joshua Tree Astronomy Arts Theater" located at the Joshua Tree Lake, RV, and Camp, Park offers starry night events and parties. The theater was founded by the Southern California Desert Video Astronomers (SCDVA), a group of local amateur astronomers that meet monthly for astronomy-related talks and events at the Yucca Mesa Community Center. Riveting images of nebula and various galaxies are projected on a 24’ long by 9’ tall screen with the use of extremely sensitive video cameras. Chairs are provided, or you can bring your own. The amphitheater is large and spacious; add Beethoven or sometimes live music, and it’s an unforgettable experience, complete with the romance of a starry night.

While attending the Perseid Meteor Shower on August 12th, I met two young men from Orange Country who were camping at the RV park. They brought friends, cameras, an appreciation for the desert and an appetite for learning. I met a mother with her three children ages, 5, 8, and 18. The age range of the approximately 250 attendees was from toddler to Senior. No one was too young, or too old.

For the dedicated astronomer and interested novice, club members provide a variety of telescopes, including computer-driven astro-imagers designed to capture deep space in almost real-time conditions. Some visitors bring their own telescopes, and members of the SCDVA give assistance when needed. One of the founders and manager, Tom O’Key, provides explanations about the images projected on the screen and adds informative and entertaining stories about the star constellations and their mythology. He has a wealth of information and generously shares it.

Leonard Holmberg, the second telescope operator, created the Starcart that houses six computers and projects 3D images. Families, neighbors, strangers - everyone huddles together, and it feels like a family reunion.

Larry Filke, a visitor to the theater said, “The Astronomy Theater events have long been an integral part of my ability to fully realize the Mojave Desert as the place on Earth where I am most attuned to my final oneness with all things.  These events feed me spiritually, intellectually and communally.  I am grateful.”

"Sky’s the Limit, Observatory and Nature Center" in 29 Palms is a grassroots, all-volunteer nonprofit dedicated to education. The Center sits on 15 acres of land and is located on Utah Trail at the southernmost edge of the Twentynine Palms entrance to the park. Volunteers have erected a 15-foot dome housing a Celestron telescope, a welcome center/gift shop, workshop, orrery, nature trail and meditation garden.

On a typical Saturday over 200 people will be coming and going all evening. Small groups congregate around personal telescopes while informed volunteers explain what is happening in the sky. Everyone is helpful, full of passion and excitement. 

I was captivated for a good 30 minutes by a 13-year-old astronomer named Sam Deen, who was visiting the high desert with his family. Sam was eagerly waiting for the appearance of  "2 mass j-18352154-312338.5," a binary star, about 25 light years away. The sighting would be of monumental importance since no one has ever seen this star. He discovered it through X-rays. Sam and I saw something shooting through the night. It just might have been Sam’s personal discovery or it might have been a Perseid Meteor. He will keep looking, I’m sure of that.

The next scheduled Saturday night session is August 22nd, “Observing the first quarter moon.” On September 5th, “Take a “grand tour of the cosmos,” with guides manning the telescopes and teaching the subject they love the most. On September 12th, the team of volunteers will talk about “Galaxies and Globular Clusters.” On September 19th, observe a Crescent Moon. Add the views of lunar landscapes, binary stars and deep space objects and you will be mesmerized for hours, or at least until it gets light.

The SCDVA also provides private parties and special group events along with Astro camping either in a tent, car, truck, van or RV. Check the website for future showings.

Joshua Tree Astronomy theater website is: http://www.joshuatreetheater.com

Southern California Desert Video Astronomers: scdva.org. 

The Joshua Tree Lake RV and Camping Park is located at 2601 Sunfair Rd. Joshua Tree, CA. 92252

Sky’s the Limit’s website is http://skysthelimit29.org

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