Astronomy For Beginners
GMU Observatory Tours
A few years ago I attended an Evening Under The Stars event at George Mason University Observatory (Fairfax, in Northern Virginia). It is usually a short astronomy presentation, followed by a tour of the telescope.
The talk was interesting, and I loved getting the chance to look through their 30 inch telescope!
The views of the moon were incredible! I was able to hold my iPhone 7 up to the eyepiece and grab a couple of photos:
Because of the pandemic, they started conducting these events online, and posting them on Youtube. Here’s one from April (the link here is directly to the observing part):
This is a free, and very convenient activity that you can enjoy with your kids. Even my young kids seem to be very interested and it held my 8 year old’s attention for the entire telescope and observing part.
One benefit of the virtual tours is that you don’t have to wait in line to look through the telescope, everybody can see the photos at the same time. :-)
In the talk above they showed and explained a photo they took in December 2020 of the Great Conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter:
They also captured an image of the Eagle Nebula:
(This is where NASA’s amazing photo of The Pillars of Creation comes from.)
In Person Tours
Tours reopened again recently and I took my kids and some friends along. It was a pretty cloudy night, but we were still able to see Saturn, Jupiter, Vega, and two dual star systems.
Saturn and Jupiter looked much smaller than they did in the picture above, and they looked only white (no color). Vega and the dual stars were just bright white dots. We weren’t able to look at the moon, both because it was below the horizon, and because it is too close to a full moon, which means the brightness could damage our eyes.
The kids still really enjoyed the memorable experience.
They got to see the control room where you can control what the telescope should view. The system automatically finds and track known stars/galaxies etc as it moves through the sky, which makes it much easier than trying to use your own telescope.
We were also given a mini talk on the research that they are doing helping search for habitable planets outside of our solar system, as part of NASA’s Exoplanets project. So far >4500 planets have been found, and according to the whiteboard, 60 of these were in the habitable zone (I’m not sure where this number comes from).
Overall, I highly recommend the GMU talks and observatory tours!