Home-schoolers' star party is a stellar event

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 2, 2005

From "Coffee Cup U." with a bunch of us old guys to a potluck supper and star party with a bunch of delightful home-schooled kids is quite a journey.

Let me tell you about it.

It began with a phone call last May from Laurel Pedersen, a home-schooling parent who, with her husband Will, has a farm about 20 minutes north of Cochrane.

Laurel was responding to my May 19 column in which I mentioned a coffee chat I had with several old-timers, including John Hall. John's an amateur astronomer who is deeply concerned over the light pollution that is robbing us of truly dark night skies.

Laurel boasted not only that her farm had awesomely dark skies, but that it would also make a great meeting place for some enthusiastic home-schooled kids eager to learn more about astronomy. Would I be interested in putting something together?

You bet I would, I said.

And so one afternoon last fall we gathered at the farm. The 20 or so home-schoolers ranged in age from eight to 15, and were as highly motivated a group as I've ever encountered.

At that first session we prepared for the Oct. 27 lunar eclipse. These kids had all the right insights.

Demonstrating the eclipse with a baseball and volleyball, I asked the kids what they could infer about the shape of the earth from its curved shadow on the moon. They immediately concluded from its shadow that earth was indeed round. (If these sharp kids had been around in ancient times, think of how much further ahead science would be today!)

Well, I guess I must have done okay, because they invited me back for an end-of-January star party.

This time I brought with me "Dark Sky" John, partly because he was the one who originally raised the issue of dark skies, but also because he had a great telescope he was happy to make available for the evening.

And what an evening it was! When we arrived, Will had already got a welcoming campfire started behind the house, the folks inside were laying out a tempting spread of food, and cars full of budding young astronomers were pulling up, primed for a peek at the starry spectacle overhead – although I think Laurel's tantalizing beef-on-a-bun may also have been on their minds.

We called the evening an "Orion Star Hop." The constellation of Orion the hunter dominates the southern sky this time of year. It serves as a road sign to many other stellar attractions, including the six brightest stars in the winter panoply.

The kids quickly located the straight line of three stars that make up Orion's belt. They picked out the four stars that define Orion's shoulders and legs, and especially the bright star Rigel at the lower right. Together we traced a line from the belt toward the lower left to Sirius, the brightest star in our sky.

From there we continued clockwise on a hexagonal tour of the other bright stars that surround Orion: Procyon in Canis Minor, Pollux in Gemini, Capella straight overhead in Auriga, Aldebaran the eye of the bull in Taurus (as far to the upper right of Orion's belt as Sirius is to the lower left), and then back to Rigel. A side trip west of Aldebaran took us to the Pleiades, the jewel of wintertime night skies.

Later we peered through Dark Sky John's telescope deep into the sword hanging from Orion's belt, into the Orion Nebula, a vast cloud of dust aglow with the exuberance of a stellar nursery, a birthing place of stars about to be.

But the real "star" of the evening wasn't a star at all. Kids and parents alike lined up at Dark Sky John's scope, turning their attention now to a brilliant dot below Pollux. We didn't tell them what to expect, but everyone knew as soon as the first one looked through the eyepiece.


There are few night sky experiences more exciting than seeing with one's own eyes the rings of Saturn for the first time. And this was the first time for almost everyone there.

Well, I guess they were all pretty happy. I know we were. The Pedersens even sent us home with some of their famous Alberta beef sausage – a stellar attraction in anyone's book.

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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