CCAS at Science Night

As a member of the Central Coast Astronomical Society, I occasionally participate in astronomy outreach events. For instance, this evening I was invited to represent CCAS at one of the local elementary schools for a Science Night. Which normally involves setting up a telescope to share views of the night sky with attendees. This is the third Science Night I've participated in this year.

The forecast for this evening wasn't particularly promising with there being a thin layer of high clouds, but I was still hopeful that the sky would clear up later on in the evening.

As usual, I arrived early to set up, and brought with me the Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 102AZ, a 4" f/6.5 achromatic refractor. I like using this telescope for outreach events because it's quick and easy to set up, super easy to use, and easy to teach others how to use. Even the kindergarteners are able to pick up on it, and use it on their own in no time. It's also fairly light-weight with the total kit weighing in at just over 14lbs. Using a telescope bag, I'm able to carry everything I need with me in a single trip when walking from the car to the observing site.  

The optical quality of the doublet is surprisingly good, despite it being relatively inexpensive. Being a small refractor, there's virtually no wait time involved in acclimating the optical tube to ambient temperature, unlike when using large reflectors or catadioptric telescopes. The refractor also requires very little maintenance between observing sessions, and will likely never need to be re-collimated. As for the telescope mount, the manual AltAz design means having a simpler setup routine being that there is no need to perform polar alignment. There are also fewer points of failure with a manual AltAz mount when compared to computerized GoTo mounts. In general, the Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 102AZ is a fairly rugged telescope, and a good performer.

Our first target for the evening was the 2 day old waxing crescent Moon. Which still managed to wow parents and kiddos alike despite it being low to the horizon, and viewed through clouds.

With the Moon eventually obscured, our next target would be Saturn. Although only for a brief moment before Jupiter took center stage for the rest of the evening. With only a 660mm focal length, the planets appeared as little more than tiny dots through the eyepiece, even after swapping out a 15mm eyepiece for a 10mm eyepiece. 

The increase in magnification from 44x to 66x allowed viewers to see the planet Jupiter with two prominent cloud bands running along the equator, while the field of view was still wide enough to include all four Galilean moons. Due to the increase in magnification though, and the lack of tracking, the telescope had to be re-centered with each viewer's turn. Some of the kids were also less inclined to listen to instruction than others, and would end up grabbing hold of the telescope when looking through the eyepiece. Which meant having to refocus, and in some cases, locate the planet again after drifting out of the field of view.

Working outreach events like this one is a lot like working a booth at a trade show. For two hours, I served as a personal tour guide of the night sky to each person taking a peek through the telescope. Mostly repeating myself with each person as I provided instruction and described the details of what they were seeing in the eyepiece. By my estimate, more than two hundred Science Night attendees had the opportunity to look through the telescope. Throughout the evening, there were dozens of people standing in line at a time, cold and in the dark, awaiting their turn to look through the telescope. Kids were often restless though, and would end up running around the telescope in the dark. To minimize the risk of anyone tripping over the legs of the telescope tripod, I had red lights attached to each leg pointed down at the feet to make them more visible. 

Just like with the trade shows, my voice was raspy by the end of the night from all the talking. I was thirsty, physically exhausted, mentally drained, and cold. Dew was just beginning to settle in on my gear as I began to pack up. This was probably the busiest outreach event I've participated in so far. Certainly one of the more demanding ones. Thankfully, it went by fairly smoothly, and without incident. In the future though, I think it may be best to have at least two CCAS members in attendance when working events like these.