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Star power: Volunteers share night-sky knowledge with kids, adults at historic observatory

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By Virginia Grantier

People were standing in the dark Saturday night on a faraway hill in the mountains near Pine as they waited for the children.

But in the velvet calm of quiet pines and forest floor, just before a fat moon slid into view, it wasn’t so calm for Peg Alig, a naturalist, and for the others waiting on the trail that led to the hilltop observatory.

Alig and other staff and volunteers from Lookout Mountain Nature Center, an educational arm of Jefferson County Open Space, were preparing to share their knowledge and passion for astronomy with about 125 children and parents who were making their way up the half-mile trail using unobtrusive flashlights covered in red cellophane. They were participants in the annual free kids night at the circa-1937 observatory at Pine Valley Ranch Park.

Alig doesn’t know why so many people signed up this year — a much bigger group than normal that resulted in a waiting list — but she was so glad. The team of seven astronomy volunteers, which includes the expertise of an astrophysicist, is dedicated to introducing as many children as possible to the night sky.

Alig said children are spending way too much time inside with television and other electronic devices, and the “connection with the night sky is being lost.”

She said kids should be experiencing the thrill of a shooting star, or seeing Saturn in “real time … that beautiful ringed planet. It’s just spectacular.”

“Learning the night sky is like learning a language … Eventually you know exactly where (the constellations) are,” Alig said.

“I really enjoy observing star clusters and globular clusters, (which are) some of the most ancient objects in the universe. Just looking at something that’s 14 billion, 15 billion years old is just mind-boggling,” she said.

“Amazing,” is the word several parents used when describing Saturday night’s experience.

I’mlearning stuff,” said Michele Weber, 47, of Golden, who was there with her daughter, Madison Weber, 8.

Letisha Rosales of north Denver, looking for a fun activity for her children, learned about the event in a parenting magazine. Rosales said the children’s grandmother, Lillian Domagall of Denver, was the family astronomy fan, always pointing out things in the sky to the grandkids. They all came to the event, and when they reached the first station on the hike, Alig’s station, they got their first thrills. Vega, the star, was directly above them. And then there was Cassiopeia, five bright stars in the shape of a “W.” And the Big Dipper. Also, in an interactive exercise with the kids involving mirrors, flashlights and photos, Alig explained the difference between planets and stars.

Farther up the hill, at astronomy team member Ric Rieder’s station, participants learned about Jupiter and its four moons.

Near the observatory were naturalist Simon Young, with a large telescope pointed at deep-space objects, and Alicia Vermilye, program/volunteer coordinator for Lookout Mountain Nature Center, who talked about the moon — its creation, its craters. Her tools included a rectangular pan of flour.

In the observatory, naturalist Mark Gallup explained the telescope’s history — how in 1937 William Baehr, an avid stargazer, wealthy Chicago businessman and owner of Pine Valley Ranch, had his foreman, Conrad Johnson, assemble the 6-inch refractor J.W. Fecker telescope by bringing up the parts in a Model T pickup.

On Saturday night, Gallup had the telescope’s clock mechanism synchronized with the star Abereo — which is actually a pair of bright stars that make up the foot of the Northern Cross — so viewers could watch Albereo cross the night sky.

One 7-year-old girl, after walking back down the hill to go home, told Amanda Johnson, an event organizer, that “she now wants to know about everything else that’s out there.”

For information about future Lookout Mountain Nature center events, which are all free, visit http://www.jeffco.us/openspace/openspace_T56_R135.htm or call 720-497-7600.