On clear Saturdays in Carson City, Star Parties bring heavens to Earth

Shannon Litz / Nevada Appeal Visitors look through a telescope at the Western Nevada College observatory. Star Parties are every Saturday at sunset when skies are clear.

Shannon Litz / Nevada Appeal Visitors look through a telescope at the Western Nevada College observatory. Star Parties are every Saturday at sunset when skies are clear.

Curiosity reaches across the universe most Saturday evenings at Western Nevada College's Jack C. Davis Observatory.

When the skies are clear, members of Western Nevada Astronomy Society and observatory staffers set up telescopes for anyone wanting a closer look at the planets, moons, stars, galaxies and other mysteries of the universe. Twice a month, science lectures draw standing-room-only crowds.

Michael Thomas, president of the Western Nevada Astronomy Society and a science and history lecturer in the area, helps with observatory operations and stargazing.

"We find the greatest satisfaction when people bring their families," Thomas said of the Star Parties, which have been going on since the observatory opened in 2003. For younger audiences, "it's a huge deal when they see the rings of Saturn."

Such family outings often spark an interest in science, and sometimes careers in the field, he said.

Robert Collier, director of the observatory, an astronomy teacher and vice president of the society, said he enjoys introducing people to the wonders in the night sky.

"It's amazing to see the reaction when they first come to the observatory," said Collier, who was instrumental in the effort to build the observatory.

"Many people come up having never spent much time looking at the sky. They see a galaxy through the telescope and 'ooh and aah.' It's not just children (who are amazed)," he said.

Collier described a memorable night when Saturn was visible. A woman looked into the telescope and was startled at the clarity.

"She looked up because she thought someone was holding up a book (in front of the telescope)," he said.

In addition to stargazing, the observatory's lectures help satisfy Carson-area residents' hunger for science in all its forms.

On the second and fourth Saturdays of each month, Thomas presents science lectures and slide shows at the observatory, diving into his giant repertoire of topics such as Killer Asteroids and Leonardo da Vinci. This week, his topic is "Mysteries of the Universe: Filaments and Dark Flow."

He encourages people to come early, because it's often crowded.

"Everybody likes the lectures, but when we did it every Saturday, it cut into time for viewing with the telescopes," he said.

Thomas, a retired police officer whose avocation is science and history, has been presenting science and history lectures at various venues for about five years. He researches one or two topics a month, delving into his extensive home library, public libraries and research done during his travels.

Thomas gives 18 to 20 lectures a month for various service clubs, at senior homes and at other locations. He said that in 3 1/2 years of giving lectures at the Dayton Valley Country Club, he has never repeated one.

In May, the observatory will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Collier, who has traveled around the country visiting other facilities, said Western Nevada College is fortunate to have such a quality observatory.

"We're far ahead of many four-year institutions," he said. "We're doing things way ahead of everyone else."

The observatory is not just for public shows. Real science investigations take place there. That research includes spectra and temperature measurements of variable stars, Collier said. Another research team is looking for exoplanets, planets in orbit around distant stars.

"It's a very busy place," Collier said. "Many people are trying to work on telescopes at same time. We're having growing pains, which is a great thing for an observatory."

The Jack C. Davis Observatory is a "marvelous place, all in pursuit of educational goals and doing research," Collier said. "It's just as I dreamed. I'm living in my dream."


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