Astronomy event finds wonder in night sky

Photo courtesy Louisville Astronomical Society


PATOKA LAKE — Ken Alderson calls it the “wow factor.”

It’s the only word they can muster, when people peer into the galaxy with high-powered telescopes, gazing at astral bodies that float incomprehensibly far away but appear inexplicably close.

“People cannot help but say, ‘Wow,’” said Alderson, who is the president of the Louisville Astronomical Society and a NASA solar system ambassador.

Area residents of all ages will have the opportunity to feel that wonder on Saturday, when the Evansville Astronomical Society collaboratively hosts the 28th annual Stars on the Beach event at Patoka Lake with the LAS and Stonebelt Stargazers of Bedford.

Activities include the creation of solar bead bracelets in the afternoon and safely looking up at the sun, planets and stars in the evening and at night. Club members will lead presentations and high-quality telescopes will be supplied by hobbyists in the above groups, allowing attendees to spot objects like Saturn’s rings and Jupiter.

Alderson called the concept “sidewalk astronomy” — meaning astronomers bring their expert equipment to the public for educational purposes. He hopes attendees learn their place in the universe — which is miniscule — and leave in awe of what can be found in the sky above them.

“We hope that we implant in them that they need to take care of this spaceship Earth that they’re flying through space on at 64,000 mph,” Alderson said. “If they don’t take care of it, it’ll be gone.”

Due to high water levels, this year’s event will be held off the beach and on higher ground nearby. Tony Bryan, president of the EAS, explained that Patoka Lake is an ideal stargazing spot because the skies are some of the darkest in the area. This allows viewers to see dim objects — like part of the Milky Way galaxy and other galaxies and nebulas — that might not be seeable in a city like Jasper.

“You can just see a lot more than you can from your backyard,” Bryan said. “Even if you’ve got a street light that’s a couple hundred yards away or whatever, that still gives you some light pollution. And so at Patoka, there’s not a lot of lighting, and only small towns surrounding [it], so you get a much better, higher contrast view of the night’s sky.”

As of Thursday evening, the National Weather Service is predicting partly cloudy skies for the area on Saturday night, with calm wind and a low of 66. Alderson said that shouldn’t be a problem, but if a dense cloud cover were to move in, other activities like discussions about telescopes could take center stage.

The event is open to both kids and adults, but Alderson feels passionately about passing his love of space on to a new generation.

“They are our only hope,” he said. “They are the ones who are gonna become the astronauts. They’re the ones who are gonna become the astronomers. They’re the ones that will become the physicists. It’s called touching a heart.”

Alderson has a collection of 4.6-billion-year-old meteorites that predate the formation of Earth. He’ll bring them to Saturday’s star party, allowing attendees to touch and feel something from far, far away.

“When they hold it, you can see the look of wonder in their eyes,” Alderson said.

For more information regarding this program or other interpretive events, the Patoka Lake Nature Center can be reached at 685-2447.

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