ASKC’s Heart of America Star Party
The Astronomical Society of Kansas City (ASKC) is a group of amateur and professional astronomers that meet every month to look at the night sky. I visited them for their annual Heart of America Star Party, held more than an hour’s drive south of Kansas City.
The location is a large, flat, grassy field that is far enough away from city lights and towns with street lights that the night sky is easily seen, all the stars popping out. On arriving, the very first people we spoke with, two sisters who parked next to us, welcomed us and feeling welcomed was the main theme of the evening! Astronomers love sharing their telescopes with others, but it can be awkward approaching new people. ASKC was more inclusive than any other astronomer group I’ve visited.
The sisters led us to the main cabin to meet Jackie Beucher, the Secretary of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City, who was our guide for two hours. The group purchased this site, which they call the Dark Sky Site, eight years ago and the club has been working to improve it ever since. Now they have a mens’ and womens’ bathroom, running water from the city, and showers. Along the field they have an electrical grid, to power the visitors in long rows of recreational vehicles and tents. The Dark Sky Site is one of only perhaps 30 of dedicated astronomy sites in the country.
To help you see best in the dark, the group leaves all lights off except for a bit of blood red lighting peeking out of campers and tents. Red light doesn’t affect night vision. So you walk slowly, feeling your way along lines of astronomers parked with vehicles and tents like a tailgate party. But these enthusiasts come with gadgets. About 120 people were camped out there, with more coming the following day, some from far away states. During the day, they have lecture, workshop, and social activities.
The best gadget of the evening was a set of infrared binoculars that someone loaned me to try. Just like I had imagined, even in the black night, with them you can see details of the people, grass, and forest around you. Then look upwards and see millions of pinpoints of light, the stars that you can’t see in the visible spectrum. Of course we saw and got to use big telescopes, some of which were bigger than a person and you needed a stepladder to get up to the eyepiece. None of the telescopes are a permanent installation on the site, but you can visit the affiliated Powell Observatory, which has a large permanent telescope that is open to the public, or go to the public night at the Warkoczewski Public Observatory at UMKC at other times of the year.
Joe Wright, the ASKC Vice-President, used a laser pointer to point directly at stars in the sky. We saw constellations like the Big Dipper and Pegasus, and we saw the International Space Station zip by. We saw the Andromeda Galaxy, a double star cluster, the bright star Vega, the Ring Nebula, and someone pointed out the Milky Way. We also met Scott Kranz, a National Observing Award Chairman, sitting at his telescope and also listening to a baseball game on the radio. At one point I said to Jackie, “You must get tired of explaining the basics to newcomers,” and she responded, “Far from it!” You really could not have a nicer “newbie” experience that to visit ASKC and let them show you the stars.
Speaking of stars, just as I was leaving, we met astronomer David Levy, who is famous in astronomy circles for discovering 23 comets, including Shoemaker-Levy 9 which you have probably heard of if you care about comets at all.
I asked David Levy if he has a quick quote for this article, but nothing came to mind. He had just arrived after a long trip. However, as we were leaving, he called out to us, “Hey, would you like some popcorn?”
So I didn’t get a sound bite from a famous astronomers, but I did get a bite to eat.
The Heart of America Star Party is over, but learn more about ASKC’s upcoming meetings at www.askc.org.