- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

When 6-year-old Ron Harvey went out to feed his pet rabbits at his home in Vienna, Va., on a cold winter night in 1974, he looked up at the sky, and something caught his eye. Could it have been an airplane? No. A UFO? Quite possibly, as seen through the eyes of a child.
The boy later learned that what he had spied that night was a satellite moving across the velvety blue sky. He also saw three stars in a line surrounded by other stars — which he learned was the constellation Orion, the great hunter and one of the most recognizable patterns of stars in the northern sky.
The serendipitous sighting piqued his interest in astronomy, the scientific study of the universe beyond the Earth. Twenty-six years later, ranger Harvey, 32, is still star-struck and awed by celestial occurrences. He shares his knowledge and enthusiasm about the stars and the planets with the young and the young at heart as director of the Rock Creek Park Planetarium in Northwest Washington.
Stargazing isn't just for rocket scientists anymore.
"People stargaze for many reasons it's the intrinsic beauty. Think about it, ever since the dawn of civilization, people have looked up and wondered what was that little twinkling light," Mr. Harvey says.
"The days of the week are named after celestial objects in the night sky. For example, Monday is named for Moon Day. Saturday is named after the planet Saturn. And stargazing is an activity you don't have to be an expert in order to appreciate. Everyone has his or her own reasons for looking up into the galaxy, but when they do, they pause and wonder, and it puts things in better perspective," he says.
There's no need to buy lots of expensive equipment, either. That's one of the joys of stargazing. Just bring your imagination and an open mind, Mr. Harvey says. It doesn't cost a cent to stand and look up.
Stargazing tends to be difficult in cities because of the light pollution with the gaggle of headlights and street lights used by drivers to navigate. The light bounces up into the sky and can make stargazing arduous.
Don't despair. Location is everything, Mr. Harvey says with a smile. The less light pollution, the better for seeing stars in the sky.
Although Rock Creek Park is a day-use-only park, stargazers gather there one evening a month — April through November — to search the skies in "Exploring the Sky," an informal astronomy program that started about 50 years ago at the park. The program is sponsored in partnership with the National Capital Astronomers club. The monthly Saturday-evening get-togethers give folks an opportunity to see the stars and planets through telescopes from a location in the park. NCA members graciously bring their equipment and set it up in the field south of the intersection of Military and Glover roads, near the Nature Center.
"Even if you can only see the brightest of the stars, it's amazing what you can see through a telescope. There have been times when the light pollution was so low, we've picked up the planet Neptune, which is hard to see at any time," Mr. Harvey says.
"Neptune is a very, very distant planet and cannot be seen with the naked eye. Even with a telescope, it will look like a little blue dot, but to be able to see it in Washington, D.C., is pretty cool," he says.
Regina Baca, 23, recently attended her first "Exploring the Sky" session, but the weather conditions weren't ideal. So, the gathering met inside the park planetarium. Like Mr. Harvey, she found her interest in the planets and stars early, she says. She had heard about the "Exploring the Sky" program and decided to come out and see the stars.
Ms. Baca says her parents used to take her and her two younger sisters outside to see meteor showers when they lived in California. That's when she got hooked on the stars.
"It's intriguing to me. This is something that's outside of this world. Although I don't [formally] study astronomy, I enjoy watching documentaries, and I've seen the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. When my sisters and I were younger, we would look up and see what we could find in the sky," says Ms. Baca, who lives in Temple Hills.
That's what Mr. Harvey and Joe Morris, the program's manager, like to hear. Mr. Morris is a longtime enthusiast who comes to the park rain or shine to co-lecture with Rock Creek Park rangers. He's also a longtime NCA member. Both Mr. Harvey and Mr. Morris want to create interest in and enthusiasm for astronomy.
"Our project is an outreach to the people of the District and surrounding areas who don't have the time or the money or who may have small children and cannot dedicate an entire night to a telescope program," says Mr. Morris, 57.
"On a good night, the session can run for two hours or longer. Sometimes the weather does not cooperate so we say, better luck next time. But the planetarium provides the image of what the sky would look like should we have wonderful visibility," he says.
Mr. Morris, a computer systems engineer, gets very excited when he talks about stargazing. He says it's critical to the countrythat young people get interested in the sciences.
"Even though you can't reach out and touch the stars, you can actually hold a piece of our solar system in your hand, and you can look up and enjoy them even if you aren't interested in becoming an astronomer," says Mr. Morris, who lives in Fairfax.
"The idea that science is a standoffish business where you have to go college before you can even understand it — well, that's what we're trying to dispel," he says.
When Mr. Morris says visitors can touch a piece of the galaxy with their hands, he's not joking. Folks can hold a small piece of a 41/2-billion-year-old meteorite in the palm of their hands at the planetarium.
"No matter what the age of the person coming here, they are always awestruck" by the shooting star, Mr. Harvey says.
Mr. Morris enjoys gazing at the great Orion Nebula in the area below Orion's belt that is sometimes referred to as the scabbard and a nursery for new stars.
"Astronomers have found a high number of stars in that particular area just beginning their life. It's a beautiful object, and you can see it with the naked eye on a clear night. … It is an object, not a star, a glowing cloud of gas. Binoculars will make it look even more impressive — even a low-power scope produces a wonderful image," he says.
"Exploring the Sky" is one of the park's most popular programs, Mr. Harvey says. Calls come into the Nature Center year-round. He says that groups can range from 30 to 40 or that up to 100 visitors might show up to peer into a variety of telescopes, thanks to the NCA.
"We couldn't do this program without the volunteers from the National Capital Astronomers who give so freely of their time. They're great people, extremely friendly, and their knowledge base is incredible, and everybody is an expert in their own regard. Not only do we enlighten people — we learn from each other," Mr. Harvey says.
This fall, once the sun sets, a planet that has long been a hotbed of debate will be the first object people will try to find. Planets appear a lot closer because they don't twinkle.
"Twenty minutes after the sun sets, Mars will be the planet that catches people's eye. Just look over to the southwestern sky, and you will see it clear as day. For the early birds who get up before the sun rises, they will see the planets Saturn, Jupiter and Venus," Mr. Harvey says.
"As for the constellations, you will see Cygnus, the swan; Lyra, the harp; and if you wait later in the evening, you will see Pegasus, the winged horse."
Later during the fall, Gemini, the twins, and Orion will light up the sky. Mr. Harvey says if you can find the Big Dipper, you can find anything in the night sky. Right now, the Big Dipper is in the western sky, he says. This fall, it will be right on the horizon, so it will be very easy to see. From there, you can find the North Star and Cassiopeia.
He encourages novice astronomers to visit the Rock Creek Park Planetarium at the park's Nature Center to learn about the stars. A variety of free programs are offered for pre-kindergarten through high school and beyond, Mr. Harvey says.
Theplanetarium serves as an astronomy laboratory. It allows visitors to study the sky under ideal conditions, and it's the only planetarium in the national park system. Other helpful sources of information include Astronomy magazine and Sky and Telescope magazine. Both include monthly sky charts to help amateur astronomers locate what's in the sky and visible, Mr. Harvey says.
For more information about the program at the planetarium and the "Exploring the Sky" monthly stargazing gatherings in the park, go to www.nps.gov/rocr/planetarium/ or call the park's Nature Center Wednesday through Sunday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. at 202/426-6829.

Where to stargaze:
Rock Creek Park's "Exploring the Sky." A monthly stargazing session on the park's premises April through November. Call 202/426-6829 for dates and times. Free to the public.
Goddard Space Flight Center's "Goddard at Night" program at the visitors center. The stargazing events take place the second Saturday of the month from 7 until 9 p.m. Call 301/286-8981. Free to the public.
m The National Air and Space Museum has a program called "Evening Stargazing," which is held April through November at Sky Meadows State Park in northwestern Fauquier County, Va., with Einstein Planetarium astronomer Sean O'Brien. The next scheduled events are Sept. 15, Oct. 20 and Nov. 17. There is a $2-per-car park-entrance fee from dusk until 11 p.m. Call 540/592-3556 for directions and more information.
The U.S. Naval Observatory opens its doors for a free 90-minute tour of the facilities every Monday (except federal holidays) at 8:30 p.m. The program includes a presentation about the atomic master clock, by which universal time is determined. The evening includes observations through telescopes if the weather permits and a video on the mission and history of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Call 202/762-1467.


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