Night Sky Wonders

Taking in the wonder of the night sky, the Stars Over Elachee telescope program is set against the backdrop of the majestic Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve.

by Carol Clark

The sky over Lake Chicopee turns lavender and gold as the sun sets on a December evening. A great blue heron traipses along the water’s edge. Crickets chirr and a Carolina wren trills “teakettle, teakettle.”

People gather in the nearby parking lot as dusk settles. It’s show time for Stars Over Elachee. Just a few hours earlier, the sky was cottoned over with clouds. Now, the clouds have cleared, revealing the shining face of a three-quarters moon and bright dots of stars. Stars Over Elachee monthly telescope and astronomy program

Elachee’s monthly Stars Over Elachee astronomy program teaches people how to use a telescope and find their way around the night sky. Depending upon what planets are visible any given month, this guided tour by telescope will take place either at Elachee Nature Science Center or at the Chicopee Woods Aquatic Studies Center at Chicopee Lake. Pre-registration is required by calling 770-535-1976. 

Stars Over Elachee is one of the many public education and life-long learning programs offered by Elachee throughout the year to engage families and nature lovers. This night a particularly special planet is hanging low on the horizon and Chicopee Lake offers a better view.

“I want a telescope for Christmas,” hints Dwight Wilson, as he arrives with Gabriela Cardenas and 8-year-old Ana Sofia. The trio live in Flowery Branch, Ga. Although they are members of Elachee Nature Science Center, this is the first time they’ve come for an astronomy program.

“Our astronomical neighbors are always above us, but I realized that I never take the time to really look at them,” Dwight confides.

“I’m into Star Trek and I love nature,’” shares Stacey Roberts. This Flowery Branch resident fondly recalls hiking with her dad as a child. Now she gets outside whenever she can to “escape from the corporate world.”

Senior Elachee Naturalist Robert Webb, an astronomy expert, begins unloading from the Elachee van telescopes that resemble small cannons. The instruments, called Deep Space Hunters, contain six-inch mirrors and utilize reflecting-scope science developed centuries ago by Isaac Newton. Each telescope perches on a swivel mount, making them easy to maneuver in all directions. The mounts are a more contemporary introduction, developed by John Dobson, a Buddhist monk and inventor in San Francisco who helped bring astronomy to the masses.

“If you want to understand our place in the universe, you’ve got to look at it,’” Robert says, quoting Dobson.

This particular evening, everyone turns their scopes toward the largest object in the sky, the Moon, as Robert gives instructions on how to precisely aim and focus. One-by-one the amateur astronomers come eye-to-eye with the beautiful, battered face of a waxing gibbous moon.

“Breathtaking!” Dwight says, as he takes in every ridge and crater.

Robert gives a grand tour of the night sky, describing the myth, history and science behind stars like Vega, Deneb, the Summer Triangle and Capella — the brightest star in the constellation Auriga, which is Latin for the Charioteer.

“Capella is 42 light years from Earth,” he explains. “That means the light you’re seeing from it right now originated 42 years ago.”

“That’s fantastic!” Stacey exclaims, as she looks up from her scope. “I’m 42 years old!”

“Then that’s your star,” Robert quips. Continuing the night sky journey, he has everyone point their scopes toward a twinkling object hanging just over the pines fringing Lake Chicopee.

“Oh, my gosh!” says Ana Sophia, as she realizes she is focusing in on the wondrous sight of Saturn and its rings. “I’ve never seen this in person!”

“It’s a lot different to see Saturn with your naked eye,” Robert agrees. “It’s live.”

By the time the two-hour tour of the night sky is done, it’s clear that a least one family’s Christmas wish for a telescope is likely to come true.

See the monthly Stars Over Elachee program schedule. Debby DeRoche, another senior naturalist at Elachee, will lead the January 4, 2020 program.

“The [Stars Over Elachee] program is a great doorway into astronomy for people of all ages,” Debby offers. “You can come different times of the year and see completely different sets of constellations and learn something new. What I love best about teaching this program is when someone looks through a telescope and sees the craters on the moon or the rings of Saturn for the first time. Whether it’s a child or an adult, the look of joy and amazement that comes over their faces is like nothing else.”

If it’s cloudy or rainy, the Stars Over Elachee program morphs from a telescope program to a tour of the night sky in Elachee’s portable planetarium, Starlab. It looks a bit like a birthday party bouncy house from the outside, but on the inside, this planetarium contains the universe, with room left over for up to 50 people!

Astronomy Programs for Schools

Elachee’s astronomy programs are among the most popular for PreK-12 educators. When teachers are unable to schedule a field trip to Elachee Nature Science Center, our skilled educators take the universe to schools. With Elachee in Your Classroom outreach programs Elachee educators transport Starlab planetariums and Deep Space Hunter telescopes to school districts throughout the metro Atlanta and north Georgia region. For the most recent school year, Elachee educators presented the Nature Center’s accredited and grade-specific Seeing Stars astronomy programs to more than 7,000 school-age children.

Get aquainted with Starlab and the Elachee astronomy program. WATCH VIDEO