Partying with the Stars

When you think of L.A. and Hollywood, you think of movie stars, singers, producers, and all the glamour that surrounds it. But once a month, when there is a New Moon in Los Angeles, the L.A. Astronomy Society (L. A. A. S.) comes together at the Griffith Observatory to host a different kind of party, the Public Star Parties. These are public events, where any one is welcome to join the L. A. A. S. to look at the skies using their collection of telescopes, varying in size and wavelength. Although I am on holiday, and being the science lover that I am, I couldn’t resist a visit. I was lucky to be in L.A. to party with them, although I couldn’t persuade my friends to come with me.

On my way there, I wasn’t expecting a huge amount of people to be going to this event. Oh how wrong I was. Hundreds of locals and tourists were heading their way up to the hill to go and chat with the local astronomers. It was a great sense of community.

The Griffith Observatory wasn’t ever intended to be used for research, but instead for public engagement. It’s sole purpose is to inspire people to discover more about our universe. Its similar to a museum in a way, with exhibits and a planetarium on the inside. The whole centre gives you the chance to become an observer yourself, with two large domes, one showing real time images of the Sun, and the other of Venus.

In the gardens outside, the L. A. A. S. had set up their telescopes to start observing at about 2pm, and would be there all day until well past 10pm. I was chatting with some of the L. A. A. S. members whilst I was wondering around, looking at the Sun through their Hydrogen-alpha telescopes, and many of them said that this event was one of their favourites. Many of them didn’t have a physics or astro-physics degree, they were just star-struck by the beauty of what lies beyond our atmosphere, and wanted to get a closer look. They were all so enthusiastic about getting the public more involved with science, especially astronomy, and you could feel it too. There was a certain atmosphere there, one where everyone who was visiting wanted to learn something.

I hadn’t done much astronomy as part of my undergrad degree, and unfortunately I never had the chance to look through the telescope in the dome at Cardiff, so I was really excited about looking through some of the larger telescopes. The first telescope I looked through was pointed at the Sun. As I’ve been living in an astronomy department for the last four years, I was always waking past beautiful photographs of the Sun, but seeing it for myself was much cooler! Because the telescope was looking at the Hydrogen-alpha frequency, the Sun looked like a bright red nose, one of the ones a clown wears.

Unfortunately it wasn’t putting on much of a show for us, but you could clearly see the corona being ejected away from the surface. Seeing that in real life was so much better than on a photograph, even if it was a relatively quiet Sun.

After the Sun set over the Hollywood hills, I got the chance to look through the pièce de résistance of the event, a 26-inch telescope pointed at Saturn, which at it’s closest is 1.2 billion km away. This particular telescope initially sat in CALTECH, where it was built as a prototype solar scope that would be part of SkyLab 2, the first manned mission to SkyLab.

Saturn looked like a cartoon; a child’s interpretation of what a planet with rings would look like. Even though it may not look like anything fancy, it was still pretty exciting for me. It is the furthest planet I’ve ever seen. You could just about see it with the naked eye too, along with Spica and Mars, but seeing it magnified was something literally out of this world!

For the few hours that I was there, I was surrounded by science lovers, and I felt right at home. Some L. A. A. S. members said I was doing a great thing by going on to do Science Communication. “The more people out there acting as ambassadors for science, enthusing the public, the better” was one quote. All the astronomers and the Observatory guides wanted to do was talk about their passion, their love of astronomy. It was a great event, enjoyed by people of all ages, and was definitely worth a visit!

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