The stars at night, are big and bright, deep in the heart of…Denton. Wait, what?
Situated discreetly in the prairie lands off of I-35, just far enough away from the lights of UNT’s Apogee Stadium and down a winding road or two is the Rafes Urban Astronomy Center (RUAC). And on a clear Saturday evening, as the sun sets and the stars start to twinkle, a party is starting. A Star Party, to be specific, hosted by UNT’s Astronomy Lab.
Weather permitting, Star Parties commence at sundown every first and third Saturday nights of the month. UNT’s resident “star man” and Astronomy Lab Director Ron Dilulio describes the community events as an “astronomical experience” tailored to be as simple or complex as you’d like.
“This is the best place in the whole metroplex to view the sky and to experience astronomy without having to go 500 miles to the west,” he said. Part of the UNT Astronomy Department, the RUAC feels out of this world, yet sits just nine miles from the main campus.
Star Parties offer an educational and expert-led look at the night sky, but it’s not just for kids. “This is meant as an inspiration and an adventure,” Dilulio said, also noting that parents tend to get a little more into than their pint-sized counterparts. But the kids are the ones who head home with an astronomy certificate and a newly minted “UNT Observer” for life.
Led by advanced and graduate astronomy students, the Star Parties start as the sun starts to lower. According to Observatory Manager Preston Starr, the best time to arrive is about 30 minutes before the sun sets completely.
Give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness and take in your surroundings. See the suspended planets overhead as you stroll through the RUAC’s planet walk. Peek and glance at the state-of-the-art telescopes you’ll soon be peering through. And look up. The stars start to multiply as the sun sinks below the horizon.
When darkness falls, party attendees are guided through star maps and historical and mythological stories about how the skies impacted cultures and generations. Orion the Hunter, for example, is a favorite of Dilulio because it explains how constellations and stories connected different cultures throughout history. And because it’s fun to reference months in moons and say, “three moons ago,” like our ancestors did.
Then it’s telescope time. Probably what the kids (and the kids-at-heart) have been waiting for. It’s worth it. Two basic and 12 complex, computerized telescopes are stationed expertly around the RUAC land, just begging to be looked through. Attendees take turns scanning the sky, getting a magnified view of the stars that we so often forget glint and gleam every night.
The Star Parties typically last about two hours, providing plenty of time for exploration on your own after getting the educational part in. But according to Dilulio and Starr, no party is ever the same.
The dependability and consistency of start-time, structure and location are perks, but the always-changing content and corresponding night sky leave opportunities for new experiences at every party.
Location: Rafes Urban Astronomy Center
2350 Tom Cole Rd, Ponder, TX 76259
Price: $5/attendee (cash or credit)
Dates: 1st and 3rd Saturday of each month
Check Facebook.com/RUACatUNT for full schedule of astronomy events!