Star Parties, Night Classes and Dark Sky Adventures.

Almost every summer vacation activity requires sunscreen but not star parties. Even better for those who are not morning bunnies, star parties conveniently occur after sunset.  Stargazing with an astronomer as a guide has a magical quality in spite of the real science and history involved and the use of red pin lights makes everything seem authentic. The fascinating myths associated with the night sky and the location of constellations by season makes for a great, perhaps slightly geeky party experience to share with your kids.

Arizona star party time with real telescopes.

Arizona star party time where families have fun sharing real science in real time with real telescopes.

So where’s the party? Remarkable programs span the continent from Virginia, Minnesota, and Arizona to California, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah, each experience varying in scope based on geographic location. In the past few years I have had the opportunity to stargaze with my family several times. My list of suggestions is short but well vetted.

McDonald Observatory West Texas star party

A McDonald Observatory West Texas star party is a celestial trip with no sunscreen needed.

  1. Sky watching in West Texas at McDonald Observatory offers unimaginable views of the planets and constellations from several telescopes of varying sizes.
  2. Night sky safaris from Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson will amaze even the most jaded teen. Like MacDonald, Kit Peak is an active astronomical research complex and a place to view what scientists view daily.
  3. The night sky is strong at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. From June through October each year rangers at Carlsbad conduct a series of free night sky programs that pack an extra WOW!
  4. Astronomy Rangers rule at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. Organized star parties are held each night facilitated by Astronomy Rangers who monitor more than 40 telescopes scattered around the park.
  5. The free monthly star party at Griffith Observatory above LA is inspiring. If none of the star party dates fit in your schedule, no worries because free public telescope viewing is available each evening the Observatory is open and weather permits.

As always I welcome feedback. Do you have a favorite Dark Sky spot?

Nancy Nelson-Duac

Curator of the Good Stuff for the Family Travel Files.

Share an Out of Gravity Experience with Your Kids.

This summer the Science Museum of Minnesota is showcasing an awesome and most enlightening exhibition about space travel, space living and space in relationship to our future.  It’s a WOW! in Earth terms.

Gigantic Spaceman Science Museum of Minnesota

A gigantic spaceman beckons earthlings to Space: An Out of Gravity Experience at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.

The Minnesota Science Museum has always been on my list of must see museums but until last week I had never stepped inside. Six hours later with two snack breaks, much needed to quell mind overload, I know one visit is not enough. The place is amazing at every turn.

Space: An Out-of-Gravity Experience is one reason to make plans to be in St. Paul with your kids. It is an eye opener. A gargantuan spaceman guards the entrance hall of the Museum beckoning earthlings to get in line to see really cool stuff about the future of travel in space. The presence of the three-story giant is exciting no matter what your age and from the third floor landing it’s possible to see your own surreal reflection in the spaceman’s mask.

Science at Museum of Minnesota space station playhouse.

Science Museum of Minnesota space station playhouse for miniature astronauts attracts kids of all ages to engage in imaginative travel with a mission.

Space poses the question, what does the future hold for earthlings and space travel? It does not cover historic moments or status quo thinking but instead focuses on possibilities. I was enthralled at every turn. The experience begins with a well-scripted cinematic introduction which describes in easy to understand terms the huge challenges facing future explorers and shows how preparations are being made to solve the situations.

Every means of engaging visitors is used to convey concepts which are still on the edges of comprehension for most of us. Interactive stations simulate robotic tasks and consoles allow users to engage in mission planning simulating tasks essential to survival in outer space. Stacking blocks is not as easy as it seems when the task must be completed using a robotic arm. It’s possible to board a life-sized rotating space pod simulating the International Space Station, slightly dizzying but intriguing.

If you are anywhere near St. Paul Minnesota, this is the summer to have an  out of gravity experience with your kids and while you are there sample the gelato for an out of this world taste treat.

Nancy Nelson-Duac

Curator of the Good Stuff for the Family Travel Files.

Walking to Pluto with Kids.

This is the Year of Pluto and Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona where Pluto was discovered is celebrating the 85th anniversary in cosmic style and walking to Pluto is only part of the fun.

Lowell Observatory Cosmic Cat

An artful cosmic cat guards the Pluto Telescope at Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill above Flagstaff, AZ.

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Pluto because when I was in the fifth grade I played the tiny planet in a science fair skit. I knew then as I know now Pluto is small and its orbit erratic but the demotion to dwarf planet seems a little demeaning but no one asked me to vote. My family has found memories of visiting the Observatory when Pluto was still at the end of the planet chain. Mars Hill was then and is now a cool place.

Not able to let go of our love for Pluto, a few weeks ago my daughter and I revisited Lowell Observatory atop Mars Hill. The last time we were there she was eight years old and Pluto was still a planet. She remembered the famous telescope as being bigger and the walk much longer – no surprise.

The famous750-acre hilltop facility, guarded by a cosmic blue cat is quietly impressive. It’s a place where real scientific research is being conducted and yet the public has access to scientists who willingly answer questions about planets, star clusters, and cosmic disorder.

Lowell Observatory Pluto Telescope

After strolling the official Pluto Walk to Pluto head on to Lowell Observatory Pluto Telescope

While there are more than a dozen solar system walks spanning the continent, this Lowell Observatory hilltop complex is the best place on the plant to walk to Pluto with your kids. The official the Pluto Walk spans 350-foot (107- meter) and follows a path illustrating the scale of our solar system planet by planet with tiny Pluto at the end. Just steps beyond is the Pluto Discovery Telescope (actually an astrogragh), one of the most famous telescopes in the history of American astronomical research.

Within the hilltop complex there are plenty of cosmic connections, including stargazing to be enjoyed but for us walking to Pluto’s was the best.

Nancy Nelson-Duac,

Curator of the Good Stuff for the Family Travel Files.