Trying to catch an up-close glimpse into the sights of the galaxy, both young and old Herndon students and their parents gathered under a cool spring sky in Great Falls last Friday night as they attended Family Night at Observatory Park, an astronomy event sponsored by the Herndon High School Planetarium.
"The goal is to get people out here to see firsthand what they've learned in class and to get other people who are interested to come out and see the stars," said Mary Blessing, director of the Herndon High School Planetarium and astronomy teacher.
"On clear nights my astronomy class will come out here for extra credit and give sky tours," Blessing said, pointing out that it's a great way for students to apply what they've learned in class and to increase awareness of astronomy and the Herndon Planetarium in the community.
Despite the fact that last Friday was a bit too cloudy to catch a view of the true brilliance of the galaxy, students still gathered around the large refractor telescope set up near the observatory and peered into its lens.
The telescope belonged to Alan Figgatt, a local astronomy enthusiast and a member of the Great Falls Analemma Society, who was providing the sky tour to the families, explaining what they could see in the telescope and where it was in the night sky.
ON CLEAR FRIDAY NIGHTS, spectators can expect to see as many as 15 telescopes lined up in Observatory Park, according to Figgatt.
But the universe is not just for adults, Blessing said.
"One of our main goals is for our elementary schools and their families to come out and see what they can see at the planetarium," Blessing said, adding that they regularly sponsor trips with area elementary schools and notify parents to come out for sky tours.
One of those young students was Daniel Lacher, a 10-year-old fourth-grader from Clearview Elementary in Herndon whose recent science project on the topic of stars has helped to pique his interest and get him to come with his father and six-year-old brother Ben out to Observatory Park.
"We came out here to go stargazing and the clouds blocked everything," he said. "But we did get to see Saturn and the Moon. Saturn looked like a cut-out picture but you could see all the craters on the moon."
Lacher, who says he wants to major in astrophysics when he goes to college, says that although he's interested in astronomy, it is more of a hobby than something that has to do with his potential future career.
Nevertheless, he appears to know quite a bit about it.
"He tells me there are 43 moons of Saturn, right?" Daniel Lacher's father Andy asked Figgatt as he lined up to take a look through the telescope at the distant planet.
"Yeah, that's right," Daniel replied, one eye squinted shut as he looked into the telescope that must be three times his height.
STANDING NEAR BY, a handful of Blessing's astronomy students laughed and talked amongst themselves, occasionally stopping to point out a constellation or star to their parents.
"I've always liked the stars," said Ashely Griggs, a 17-year-old Herndon High School senior who came with her father. "I've come out here a few times. It's a lot of fun."
And it's more than the extra credit that keeps her coming back.
"It's cool to get a perspective of where you are in relation to the universe," she added.
As the weather warms up, more astronomy aficionados and children with an interest in galaxy will be coming out to Observatory Park on clear Friday evenings to experience the wonders of the night sky, according to Figgatt and Blessing.
For more information about the Analemma Society, visit their website at http://www.analemma.org.