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Star Parties, Night Classes and Dark Sky Discoveries. Star parties and cosmic safaris allow participants to observe the universe with a guide. The best ones are held with the help of astronomers or astrophysicists and conducted at a working observatory or official Dark Sky site.McDonald Observatory Star Party Family Experience
 
Here’s the scoop. Star parties or star safaris have a magical lure because it is a way to meld science, history and mythology into one evening. It is a way to practice the skill of observation with your kids. Remarkable stargazing programs span the continent and vary in scope based on geographic location. In the past few years I have had the opportunity to stargaze several times and I am looking forward to a few more before the end of the year. My list of suggestions is short but well vetted and as always I welcome feedback. Do you have a favorite Dark Sky spot if so Tell Mom.
 
McDonald Observatory Sky Watching in West Texas. Fort Davis enjoys some of the darkest night skies in the continental United States hence a star party at McDonald Observatory offers unimaginable views of the sky. There are two levels of public star parties, one for families with young children and additional version for teens and adults. The popularity of both of these experiences means it advisable to make reservations in advance.  The night sky constellation programs include the opportunity to view of celestial objects through several telescopes of varying sizes located in the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park at the Visitors Center. Bonus Points: Sky gazing programs are also conducted during daylight hours and may easily be combined with a star party experience.  Here’s the deal!  Discounted Star Party passes may be purchased online until 12 hours prior to the program start time. (McDonald Observatory Visitors Center 3640 Dark Sky Drive, Fort Davis, TX 79734. Toll-free 877-984-7827, (432) 426-3640 or www.mcdonaldobservatory.org)Kitt Peak Stargazing Aurora Over Arizona

Kitt Peak National Observatory Supreme Sky Watch. Kitt Peak, like MacDonald, is an active astronomical research complex with twenty-four optical and two radio telescopes onsite. Its remote location, 56 Miles Southwest of Tucson on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, makes it ideal for sky gazing day or night.  Within the Visitor Center complex there are three observatories offering the possibility for hands-on experience with the latest astronomy equipment.  Guided tours for the general public are offered daily and there are also night sky   programs dedicated to stargazing. Groups are small and the astronomers are very patient with questions from everyone including children.  On the night we were there the desert sky was amazing and the telescopes impressive. We identified planets and gazed at distant galaxies using the 20- and 16-inch Ritchey-Chrétien telescopes and a 16-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.  It was chilly and though I remembered extra layers and caps I forgot much needed gloves. Bonus Points: During daylight hours Kit Peak offers a family-friendly program,” Fun with the Sun” which focuses on the life cycle of the Sun and is held at the McMath - Pierce Solar Telescope onsite. (Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center State Route 386 Tucson, AZ. (520) 318-8726 or www.noao.edu)

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Night Sky Connections.  Almost anywhere in New Mexico the night sky is clear and inundated with points of wonder. Stargazing is effortless. Just connect to your Pocket Universe app, point your smartphone at the sky, and the app identifies constellations and planets within view. Nevertheless there is no substitute for an official star party.  From June through October each year rangers at Carlsbad conduct a series of free night sky programs that pack an extra WOW! Telescopes are provided to enhance viewing the celestial blanket and participants have the chance to gaze at the sky and ask questions of rangers.  Bonus points:  In addition to star parties Carlsbad hosts the nightly Bat Flight program and Dark Sky Wilderness Walks and unique full moon hikes geared to children aged eight to 12. (Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center 727 Carlsbad Caverns Highway, Carlsbad, NM, 88220, located 27 miles from the town of Carlsbad. Carlsbad Star PartiesBryce Canyon Constellation Tour  of Sky over Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park Dark Sky Astronomy Rangers. Since 1969 Bryce Canyon National Park has been conducting night star parties revealing to those in attendance earthbound views of the cosmos. On a moonless clear night in Utah even without binoculars it is estimated from 7,00 to 10,000 stars may be seen. Bryce is on my list for stargazing. Within the park organized star parties are held each night members by Astronomy Rangers a.k.a. Dark Rangers. the trained astronomers set up and attend to more than 40 telescopes scattered around the park. On a clear night in the park, it is possible to visually travel to the Andromeda Galaxy, or look for Antares, the reddish star which it part of the constellation of Scorpio. Each summer an annual astronomy festival is held within the park by Bryce Canyon's Astronomy Rangers and the Salt Lake Astronomical Society.  Bonus Points: During full moon nights when stargazing might not be ideal the park conducts slightly spooky one and two-mile moonlit hikes. These hikes descend down into the canyon along steep and rocky trails. (Bryce Canyon National Park on UT-63. The visitor center sits 1 mile inside the park boundary. (435) 834-5322 or Bryce Canyon Stargazing

Griffith Observatory Star Watch. Los Angeles is an unlikely spot to engage in night sky observations but I like these guys and their friendly non threatening program. One Saturday a month, the Observatory hosts a free public star party with the help of volunteers from the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, the Los Angeles Sidewalk Astronomers, and The Planetary Society. If the star party date does not fit in your schedule, no worries because free public telescope viewing is available each evening the Observatory is open and weather permits. Volunteer astronomers demonstrate telescope use and answer questions about the cosmos. On the first Friday of each month, the Observatory presents “All Space Considered,” a free program offering an inside look at the most talked-about subjects in astronomy, space science, and space exploration. Bonus Points: Families with school age children may wish to join “Let's Make a Comet,” a free demonstration mixing household ingredients with dry ice to make a small comet. (Griffith Observatory 2800 East Observatory Road Los Angeles, CA 90027. (213) 473-0800 or www.griffithobservatory.org)

Content researched and posted by Nancy Nelson-Duac, Curator of the good Stuff for the Family Travel Files with images courtesy McDonald Observatory, Kit Peak Observatory, and Bryce Canyon National Park. Copyright updated 2017.


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