The Mount Lemmon SkyCenter offers Virtual Star Parties to recreate the previous in-person program, SkyNights, that was postponed due to COVID-19 regulations.
Located just under an hour from the base of Mount Lemmon, the SkyCenter houses two telescopes operated by the Steward Observatory. These are two of the 11 total telescopes at Mount Lemmon, with others owned by the University of Minnesota and South Korea to name a few.
The SkyCenter has tagged Mount Lemmon as a “Sky Island,” which Senior Instructional Specialist Travis Deyoe described as a unique biome that's surrounded by a completely different biome.
“In this case, we have the desert floor like Tucson, which is just arid desert. You go up to these mountain peaks … and all of a sudden, you have the effective wilderness of Canada,” Deyoe said. “It’s an island in the sky.”
To learn about Mount Lemmon and its ecosystem, Deyoe recommended the Mt. Lemmon Science Tour app, produced by the University of Arizona College of Science. The app works like a podcast; while you drive up the mountain, the timed audio sections explain the different stages of geography and landscape.
The Mount Lemmon SkyCenter focuses on educational outreach and its programs range from workshops to public observing and most recently: remote observing. These include "SkyNights" and "Astronomer Nights" where participants can drive up Mount Lemmon to visit the observatory and hear presentations from the educational staff. More recently, the SkyCenter has recreated its SkyNights through "remote observing" by displaying live images from its Schulman Telescope on Zoom.
Vannessa Gressieux, the program coordinator at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, talked about how the pandemic has afforded an opportunity for the SkyCenter to develop its digital programming.
“It’s been a very challenging time; however, the very, very thin silver lining … is the time to be able to invest in developing our virtual and online presence,” she said.
Gressieux went on to say that the virtual program is the “next best thing to being there in-person, all from the comfort of your own home.”
Deyoe said that they use the 32-inch Schulman Telescope and a specialized camera to take images and then share them with those who are logged onto the Star Party.
Deyoe said he is "the monkey behind the computer operating the telescope and telling them about what we're looking at … making bad space puns, that sort of thing."
The Virtual Private Star Party is priced at $350 for a 90-minute interactive program and allows for six computer logins, according to Deyoe. However, there's no limit to the number of users that can share a screen.
“If there's a group of nerdy college students or high school students that want to do a Virtual Star Party, I would highly recommend they just get a group together and do a Groupon kind of a deal,” Deyoe said.
Deyoe also stressed that the digital Star Parties make it easy for friends around the world to connect and learn together.
“You'll be able to log in wherever you are. … As long as you can login via the internet you'll be able to be part of it. That's the best part,” Deyoe said.
Deyoe described a recent Star Party where for a customer's birthday celebration, “some of them were in the UK and others were here, in Tucson, and even others were on the East Coast.”
Remote astrophotography is also offered at the SkyCenter.
“You can actually buy time on these telescopes and then use them to take your own images of galaxies or nebulas or star clusters,” Deyoe said.
The SkyCenter has since opened up in-person events again, with the SkyNights Public Observing Program re-opening on Friday, May 14. However, the SkyCenter website is clear that all events will be adhering to COVID-19 safety policies. Gressieux said that the Virtual Star Parties will be continued in concert with the in-person programs.
“It’s always been a goal of ours to be able to offer this, to open up accessibility across the board," Gressieux said.
Tickets for the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter Virtual Star Party, information on upcoming SkyCenter programming and more can be found on the SkyCenter website.
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