Sidewalk Astronomy

(published April 2002 Journal)

The vicarious reward of sharing views of astronomical objects through my telescope has long been one of my favorite aspects of astronomy. Initially my wife and young family were called to "have a look", then came fellow members of the OC RASC, and finally the general public at astronomy day events were both coaxed and coached to appreciate the many wonderful sights and concepts of astronomy that can be explored at the eyepiece of an amateur telescope.

Observing reports of sidewalk astronomy sessions by Pierre Martin and Rock Mallin of the Ottawa Valley Astronomy & Observers Group (OAOG) inspired me to approach the RASC Okanagan Centre members to see if there was interest locally in putting on such events. In February of 2001, a small group of fellow members (Jim Failes, Jim Fisher, Stewart Hill, Ron Scherer and Jim Tisdale) discussed the concept and decide to approach the management of the Orchard Park Mall, a large regional shopping centre. Once we were armed with a copy of the RASC proof of insurance provided by Bonnie Bird, mall manager Wayne Scherger was quick to give his approval for us to set up our telescopes in the mall parking lot, with only a few restraints on the locations that we used. We chose as our preferred location a spot north of the high-traffic and late hours "Chapters" outlet. The Chapter store events manager Sandra Riddolls was very enthusiastic about our activity and she has always ensured that in-store announcements of our presence are made when we are in the parking lot.

We usually only use one or two parking spaces to set up our telescopes, 4í x 4í coroplast "ASTRONOMY IN PROGRESS - Have a Look" sign, table with Moon map and hand out materials. In the summer months when the Sun is our only target, we have a solar evolution and sun-spot-detail poster as well. Our sidewalk astronomy sessions are scheduled every month between First Quarter and Full Moon, which guarantees that we will at least have the Moon as a target. From the heavily light polluted parking lot just about the only other possible targets are the Planets, Double Stars and passes of satellites such as ISS and Iridium flares. An added benefit is that our sessions are never clouded out as many of our targets are visible even under broken cloud or haze, and naturally we only go when conditions provide some expectation of success.

Every sidewalk session that I have attended has been memorable, and each one holds something special. Adults have eagerly jumped from foot to foot in excitement as they await their turn at the eyepiece, then exclaiming in joy when they report "I can see the rings, I can see the rings!" In appreciation some even return bearing cocoa and treats from the coffee shop inside Chapters. Family members ask, "how long will you be here", and a short time later return with a carload of spouses, children, and neighbours. The kids pile out of the SUV in slippers and PJís to get glimpse of the Mountains on the Moon! The appearance of a predicted ISS pass can produce looks of baffled wonderment and may even inspire a round of applause from appreciative onlookers. When looking at Saturn some ask if there is a picture taped inside the scope thinking there is some kind of trick, and I cringe when teenagers skeptically ask, "do you really think men have been to the Moon?" The X-File fed conspiracy culture is an equal opportunity destroyer of fact! However the sincere gratitude of the majority is ample reward for the frustrations of a few skeptics and many times our guests will return sheepishly to ask if there is any charge for the celestial tour. It is very gratifying when elderly persons get their first, and maybe last, telescopic views of the Moon and Planets, as they reluctantly leave with a sidelong grateful glance you canít help but feel that you have done a good thing. Kelowna has many Japanese tour groups visiting the area, and one night a group of about 15 members of such a tour were wandering almost single file through the parking lot. The lead members broke around me like surf on a breakwater nervously clutching their purses and shopping bags, as they were unable to read my signs and were not aware of what the "big tube" even was. By the time the rear guard passed I had proved my harmlessness and one member of the group stopped and gave a questioning shrug. Pointing at the Moon and then the eyepiece I persuaded him to have a look. For the next twenty minutes the entire group gathered around and through body language, hand signals and wide smiles we all shared in the joy of astronomical discovery, a pursuit that easily bridges the language barrier. It is sometimes hard to read the emotions of really young children as they quietly peer through the eyepiece, but pre-teens and even some teenagers can get very excited and the astronomer knows that a link with the cosmos and the imagination has been made.

It is important to keep returning to the same location for sidewalk sessions, as this will increase awareness of your activity. Some people will be repeat visitors and will likely give you extra encouragement to keep at it. During a session in November 2001 I was visited by a mother and son who had specifically returned to see Saturnís rings which during a summer session I had mentioned would be visible in the fall! She must have marked the "Sidewalk Window" on her calendar and then ventured out on a promising night in hopes that we would be set up.

It is natural, I think, for the astronomer to be nervous about being presented with questions that they may not be able to answer. If you are asked a question to which you do not know the answer the best advice is to tell the truth and say you will have the answer next time you come out. Bring along the Observers Handbook as it is always a great help, and I suggest reading over at least some of the solar system information before your first session. There is nothing quite like using information and answering questions to develop your own knowledge and confidence, and after one or two sessions you will be more relaxed and can start to really enjoy yourself.

There are a number of OC members (Bryan Kelso, James McRae, Harold Morgan, Ron Seiler and Wayne Willett) in the Vernon area, 46 km north of Kelowna, who are interested in starting a sidewalk astronomy group in their area as well. They are looking for a suitable location with enough evening pedestrian traffic to provide a large audience. So far, a busy restaurant and a movie theatre parking lot have presented the best possibilities.

Sidewalk astronomy is a very rewarding activity, and even though it is not the goal we have attracted a few new members to our Centre. We have certainly also increased awareness of astronomy and our Centre in this area, and the most exciting thing is the possible impact we may have had on the children. Who knows where a chance view of Saturnís rings may lead to in the future of some impressionable young mind!