Jeronimo Cruz gets pretty excited about bodies. Celestial bodies. Constellations, nebulae, star clusters.
He shares them all with a childlike enthusiasm, which makes him the perfect guide for the nightly viewing program at Kitt Peak National Observatory west of Tucson.
Several dozen astronomy tourists, as they’re sometimes called, join him on a lengthy presentation that begins at sunset and includes plenty of night sky viewing, with binoculars and telescopes.
Cruz isn’t a professional astronomer, but enough of an advanced amateur to be part of a small team of public viewing leaders at Kitt Peak.
His strategy is to be both informative and entertaining.
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“You really have to use your imagination when you’re looking at most constellations,” he told a group of about a dozen one evening. “They hardly ever look like what they’re named after!”
Cruz started his program with a tutorial on how to locate objects in the night sky with a simple pair of binoculars. After taking a few questions, he led them outside to look for Jupiter. It was just before sunset, and the planet wasn’t yet visible to the naked eye. But with the binoculars, it cast a shining beacon through the fading solar haze.
Watch a video preview of the original five-part series
‘Collecting Light: An Exploration of Arizona Astronomy.’
Cruz smiled at the chorus of amazement that moved through the crowd.
“Oh, you can see the lines, even,” said one woman in a quiet, awed voice.
As it got dark, Cruz led the group on a tour of nearby planets and stars. Later, they crowded into the dome of one of Kitt Peak’s many telescopes and took turns looking at more distant objects.
There was no shortage of quiet “oohs” and “wows.”
For many, it was their first experience using a professional telescope powerful enough to observe some of the detail of remote galaxies and star clusters. Their excitement was visible as they lined up at the eyepiece.
Timothy Beers, Kitt Peak’s director, told me in 2011 that the ‘wonder factor’ is what fuels night sky viewing programs at major observatories.
“I think the outreach activity and the public observing is one of the best tools that we have to remind the public that what we do is amazing,” said Beers.
Kitt Peak’s primary mission is research, which Beers admitted isn’t always easy to balance with the public’s fascination with stargazing. But as a National Observatory, the mission also includes cultivating popular science through public facilities.
With astronomy, Beers said it’s especially easy for the public to see “big science” in action. The field has changed remarkably since it’s early years, when only the wealthy could build telescopes and finance research.
Public outreach programs have put astronomy in the hands of everyday people.
“It’s the development of a national effort such as we have here,” said Beers, “that has democratized how we do astronomy.”
Most of Arizona’s observatories offer public viewing programs, and many are booked months in advance. A particularly popular program is the University of Arizona’s Mount Lemmon Sky Center, part of Steward Observatory.
Adam Block, who runs the program, graduated from the UA with degrees in astronomy and physics. He’s also had a lifelong fascination with the heavens.
“I always expressed an interest in the stars,” said Block. “The little dots up there always got me excited.”
His family didn’t share his fascination.
“It was just me, and the stars, and the telescope,” he remembered.
Running a public outreach astronomy program lets him share some of what he missed as a child.
“One of the things that I always wanted to do was, as I looked through the telescope and found things, to turn around and show someone else.”
He gets to do it now. Several times a week, Adam Block guides astronomy tourists through a six-hour program that includes a viewing through the Schulman Telescope.
People of all ages attend, but as they step to the eyepiece of the Schulman, even the adults become almost like children. All seem to return to a place of pure wonder and astonishment. People get quiet. Kids inform parents they want to become astronomers. Time flies.
Looking up in wonder has never been more popular.