This biannual event happens on Saturday, October 5th, this year. That date has special significance this time around since it occurs just one day after the historic date of the beginning of the Space Age on October 4th, 1957, with the launching of Sputnik. So there’s sure to be more fun and excitement than usual.
Amateur astronomy is a contagious hobby and stargazers are a gregarious bunch. These “star hustlers” love to share the heavens with others—especially newcomers to the hobby. To experience this for yourself, plan to attend an astronomy day activity near you. Begun in 1973 nationally (but since celebrated internationally as well), thousands come to these events all across the country twice a year (spring and fall) to experience activities like the following:
Always a big hit is daytime safe solar observing that allows you to see our home star up-close and in stunning detail. In addition to sunspots, special filters make it possible to see solar prominences dancing off the edge of the Sun and to look deep into its churning atmosphere. Demonstrations on solar safety are also given. And then there’s nighttime stargazing when skies are clear with a wide variety of sizes, types, and brands of telescopes. (If you are thinking of buying a telescope, this gives you an ideal opportunity to try out various scopes for yourself and “talk shop” with their owners.)
You may also see demonstrations of telescope-making involving the grinding, polishing, and testing of mirrors. Many astronomy clubs offer telescope-making classes as part of their membership. For example, one of the oldest and most active of these is the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston, which meets monthly at Harvard Observatory but has its own clubhouse, optical shop, and observatories. While telescopes are now much more
affordable today (see the scientificonline.com site for many of these) than back in the early days of homemade scopes, many still find it very satisfying to view the heavens with an instrument they have actually made themselves with their own hands. (I can personally attest to this, having built my entirely homemade 6-inch reflector at my astronomy club’s shop at Pittsburgh’s Buhl Planetarium some 60 years ago as a teenager!)
Many planetariums offer special sky shows as part of the Astronomy Day celebration and some will be commemorating the anniversary of the dawning of the Space Age with extra presentations. Also, professional observatories often hold open house nights for public viewing at this time as well. Call your local planetarium if you have one to check their schedule of events (and also to see if an astronomy club meets there). Check also with an observatory if you have one in your area. Schedules of Astronomy Day meetings and activities can typically be found in the local papers. But the best way is to go to this comprehensive web site offered by Sky & Telescope magazine:
There’s also a 2019 listing of astronomy clubs in the United States to be found on the
site, Go Astronomy at: https://www.go-astronomy.com/astro-club-search.htm
Should it be clear wherever you happen to be on the evening of Astronomy Day (chances are that it will be—October typically has the most number of clear nights of the year!), look up at the sky for a few minutes and visualize this: Silently out of the dark, for the first time in human history, a manmade object slowly passes overhead orbiting the Earth.
It was Sputnik. People everywhere were in awe and shock. I was among those watching and perhaps (depending on your age!) you were too. Surely a night never to be forgotten.
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com