Serendipitous Supercenter Sidewalk Session

Members of the unsuspecting public don't expect to find telescopes set up and pointed at Jupiter and Saturn while they are out shopping, but sometimes it makes more sense on clear nights to take the telescopes to where the people are rather than the other way around.(Credit: Tristan Closs for BRASS)

Most astronomers would not consider the brightly lit parking lot of a Wal-Mart Supercenter an optimal observing site. But if your goal is to share Jupiter and Saturn (and planets around other stars) with the unsuspecting public, a parking lot can be a great observing site. That's what the Brazos Region Astronomy Service Society recently did and 175 visitors were richer in experience for their efforts.

Public outreach doesn't have to be part of a planned event under dark sky conditions. "Spontaneous sessions avoid the frustration of bad weather cancellations," said Dennis Utley with the Brazos Region Astronomy Service Society. With a little spontaneity and tolerance for light pollution, the Brazos group took advantage of dry still skies to share an evening with their community.

Astronomers prefer dark sky sites that are often tucked away in obscure places to avoid light pollution not in high-traffic, high-visibility locations. As a result, public astronomy events require advanced planning, publicity and are subject to bad weather. Frustrated with clouded out events, the Brazos group decided to let the weather and spontaneity drive their planning. When it was clear, they would strike.

"Everybody in the community has to run to the store," said Dennis Utley with the Brazos Region Astronomy Service Society. "WalMart has high traffic flow and you find a true cross-section of your community rushing to the store in the evening. Many of these are people who would not travel out to a dark sky location."

The morning of April 25 club leaders realized it was going to be a calm clear night. At 9:30 a.m. the WalMart store manager was called followed by a personal visit later in the afternoon. By 2:00 p.m. the event was on and an email was sent to club members and student volunteers from Blinn College. By 8:00 p.m. the club's scopes were set up for viewing and lines were forming.

"Our scopes immediately attracted a attention. From that moment on, it was nonstop action.We were talking astronomy the whole time," said Utley. "I brought copies of the handouts but I underestimated the crowd, so we quickly went through them."

As an Astronomy instructor at Blinn College, Utley has found that student volunteers learn more by teaching in one of these evenings than in weeks of lectures and the biggest lesson is the joy of sharing. "Student can feel the appreciation flowing from these first time viewers," Utley said. When asked about the joy of sharing the sky with the passers by, Blinn College astronomy student Taylor Calhoun said. "It's a hoot!"

If you want to find out about astronomy events near you, contact a Night Sky Network club. Just go to our club locator page to find a local resource.