In 1973, the president of an astronomy club based in Oakland, CA started what would become an annual (and, now, biannual), international event—International Astronomy Day. Doug Berger decided that telescopes set up in easier to access public spaces would reach more people than trying to get folks interested in traveling longer distances for observatory open houses. It clearly worked, seeing as how enthusiasts, observatories, astronomy clubs, and planetariums around the world hold events to celebrate astronomy and to reach out to the curious folks who would otherwise have few opportunities to get a closer look at the wonders filling the firmament.
Originally, Astronomy Day was observed on a Saturday somewhere between mid-April and mid-May, getting as close to the first quarter moon as possible. Now that Astronomy Day is biannual, it is observed on a Saturday between mid-September and mid-October, in addition to the one between mid-April and mid-May. This year, 2017, the observances of Astronomy Day are only three days apart from the first quarter moon: the April 29th observance falls three days before and the September 30th observance falls three days after their respective first quarter moons. The first quarter phase of the moon is a pretty ideal time to reach out to new stargazers—the moon sets around midnight, giving night owls an opportunity to take in the moon and the stars. Additionally, there is not so much light from the moon that the stars are washed out, but there is enough illumination of the moon’s surface that those who are interested can see some of the features of its topography.
As someone who grew up out in the sticks, I have a special appreciation for days just as easily, if not better, observed away from city lights—Astronomy Day is one of those days, making public events more accessible to a larger number of people than other observances. Seriously, there are so many—and those are just the ones that have registered with JPL’s Night Sky Network!
The first time I ever looked through a telescope was during a PTA meeting at my very small-town-Kentucky elementary school. I saw the rings of Saturn and I was hooked. Though, I wouldn’t have regular access to a telescope until years later, I’d spend so much time just staring up at the moon and stars. Later, when I was being homeschooled in rural Florida, we stayed up late one night—sitting on the roof—to watch and document a lunar eclipse. Then, while I was in college in Texas, I was fortunate enough to make friends with several astronomy students and I loved going to the observatory a few miles north of town and getting a better look at our celestial neighbors. Well, truthfully, I enjoyed it until the coyotes would go into a feeding frenzy. I would mostly spend my time too creeped out to enjoy the stars after that point (hey, there’s a reason I don’t watch horror movies, y’all).
Unfortunately, a substantial chunk of the Southern, Midwest, Southern Plains, and Mid-Atlantic states are likely to have cloudy skies on April 29th, so check your local forecasts! If folks in those areas want to join the celebration, I recommend checking to see if any of your nearby planetariums are holding an event. Alternatively, you could stay cozy at home and do some vicarious stargazing by way of livestreams. For folks with clear skies, the sun will be setting right around 8 PM EDT/12 AM UTC and the first quarter moon will be in the western sky, hanging out with Taurus (look for the Seven Sisters) and Orion (watch out for Betelgeuse!) as it chases Mars toward the horizon. If you don’t plan on visiting a formal event, find yourself a nice, dark place and—if you’re as inexperienced as me—bust out your an astronomy app on your smartphone to help you identify some of the beautiful bodies dancing in the firmament.
I hope you’ll join me and thousands of others in looking upward, communing with the stars, and helping the universe to know itself a little better.