Seeing stars

Saturday night star parties at the Jack C. Davis Observatory


The Jack C. Davis Observatory is located at 2269 Vanpatten Ave., Carson City. Learn more about star parties by visiting or calling the observatory at 445-3000.
The Horsehead Nebula is in the constellation Orion. In astrophotography, dozens of photos must be layered together to achieve this effect.

A series of two-lane roads lead to a building on the outskirts of Carson City, where a group of partygoers are gathered on a patio under the darkened desert sky. The sound of their voices rises and falls, mingling with music emanating softly from an open door.

A man’s voice carries over the din of friendly chatter, “Anyone want to have a look at Saturn? You can see eight of the moons tonight.”

Answering calls of assent ripple through the crowd as several people break away from conversations to weave through a small forest of telescopes toward the one that’s currently aimed at the gas giant and its moons.

As Saturday evening progresses toward Sunday morning, the party continues—much like it has on almost every Saturday for more than a decade. This is a star party at the Jack C. Davis Observatory.

The space station

The Jack C. Davis Observatory opened on the campus of Western Nevada College on May 15, 2003. Its “first light"— the debut of its telescopes—was attended by Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon.

The observatory is located on the far western edge of the WNC campus, perched on the foothills of the Eastern Sierra. A walking path around the building features sculptures with artistic interpretations of the planets of our solar system. Inside the building is a classroom packed with equipment—computers, celestial globes and about a dozen small to medium-sized telescopes. Doors on either side of the classroom’s far wall open onto a narrow room with a retractable roof that houses three large, computerized telescopes. The Jack C. Davis Observatory is indeed a research-level facility, but it wasn’t created exclusively for academicians.

“We think of it as a community resource,” said observatory director and WNC physics professor Dr. Thomas Herring. “It’s not just for the college students. It’s definitely for everybody—anybody interested in astronomy at any level.”

The observatory is open to the public, and while it’s on WNC’s campus, it’s actually operated by a group of amateur astronomers, the Western Nevada Astronomical Society. Its members are not academics, but their collective body of knowledge and respective research interests are impressive, to say the least. Some of them are contributors to peer-reviewed scientific journals. And several participate in serious astronomical research through projects like the Research and Education Collaborative Occultation Network (RECON)—a National Science Foundation-funded citizen science research project aimed at exploring the outer solar system through coordinated telescope observations of objects orbiting the sun in a region farther out than Neptune, called the Kuiper Belt.

WNAS’s members are also the hosts of the observatory’s Saturday night star parties. And according to Herring, those can be a stepping stone for people interested in getting their hands on the observatory’s three large telescopes.

“If you really want to learn how to use these telescopes, come hang out at the observatory for a few weekends in a row,” he said. “Show us what you know. Learn some stuff on the patio. Volunteer some time, and you can get to play with the big guys too.”

The crew

The weekly star parties have a lot to offer, even for the casual visitor whose end goal doesn’t involve getting time on the observatory’s large telescopes. WNAS’s members each have different specializations, and the patio during a star party is good place to meet people with a diversity of experience and interests.

Red Sumner has been a member of WNAS since about 1993. A decade before the observatory was built, he and other amateur astronomers used to meet on the outskirts of town for stargazing parties. Sumner, who has been using telescopes since 1980, said the star parties are a great resource for people who are considering a telescope or have recently purchased one.

“If there’s questions about the equipment—what sort of telescopes are available—we can answer those questions right here, with telescopes,” he said. “And that’s one of the big advantages.”

The parties are also a good destination for photographers. The observatory crew is currently working on outfitting one of its telescopes with an adapter to allow people to hook up DSLR cameras for astrophotography, which is WNAS member Yash Panse’s specialization. Panse keeps a collection of his astrophotography on his phone to show visitors and can advise on getting vivid photographs of nebulae and planets. It’s a painstaking process that requires dozens or even hundreds of individual photos to be combined through photo-editing. But Panse said the results are worth the work.

“You spend multiple nights, sleepless nights, working, getting your photographs and then when you get one out of it, oh God, it’s worth it,” he said. “You don’t sleep for like six days, seven days, up all the night from like seven o’clock in the evening until well, it’s like 6 o’clock in the morning. I’ve been like, ’Oh, I’m tired, and I need to go to work.’ But then you come back, and you see your photo, and it was worth it—so worth it.”

The parties also have something to offer for those scholastically inclined. Lectures are held on the second and fourth Saturday of each month before the party begins. One of the regular speakers is a man named Michael Thomas. He’s made a career out of lecturing but has also set aside time each month for the last nine years to lecture at the observatory. His topics range from red dwarfs and black holes to Jules Verne and Star Trek. On Sept. 10, he’ll give a lecture on the Roswell UFO incident.

There’s one interest all of the members seem to share—using star parties as a way to get kids excited about science. It’s something former observatory director and WNC professor emeritus Robert Collier feels particularly passionate about.

“It takes some individual to spend some time to get someone to get into sciences like this, and it’s so important, so important,” he said.

He should know. The experience Collier hopes to create for children who attend the star parties would be one to mirror the experience that set him on the path to a career in physics.

“When these kids come up here you never know the little spark that will make a difference in their lives,” he said. “I got interested in science in third grade. … I had this young teacher that loved science, and she turned me on to it. And I got to tell her that many years later. Of course, she didn’t recognize me, but her name was Miss Riggs, and I told her, and she started just about to cry.”