Now through October, members of the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society and park rangers at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore will be hosting monthly stargazing adventures for anyone interested in learning their way around the night sky.
Here’s a link to event dates and locations coming up to celebrate the National Park Service Centennial (and throughout the summer and early fall), plus a few helpful tips for fun and comfortable viewing of the planets, meteor showers and eclipses set to appear on Northern Michigan’s inky-black stage this summer.
Fun, educational and no extra cost once you pay your park entrance fee or if you already hold and annual pass, the summer “star party season” at the Sleeping Bear Dunes has begun.
Monthly events will be held throughout the summer and early fall with each outing offering more than just a crash course in identifying star constellations and viewing the moon and other planetary bodies through a telescope. Upcoming events, provided by the NPS website, include:
- April 16 (9:00 pm-11:00 pm); Celebrate the start of National Park Week with our first Night Sky Party. All Park Entrance fees will be waived for National Park Week (April 16-24). View Mercury after sunset, as well as the waxing moon and Jupiter. This is also the first day of the Lyrid Meteor Shower (April 16-25). The Twilight Talk will be “100 Years of Planets.” Please park at Picnic Mountain (next right after Stop #2).
- May 9 (7:15 am-2:45 pm); View the transit of Mercury across the sun with the aid of a solar telescope. The last transit occurred in 2006, so take the opportunity to witness this rare event with Park Rangers and GTAS members. Solar glasses will be available to borrow. Please park in the rows furthest from the dunes.
- May 21 (9:00 pm-11:00 pm); Enjoy the Dunes under a full moon and take the opportunity to view Jupiter and Mars as well. The Twilight Talk will be “100 Years of Mars Exploration.” Please park in the row furthest from the dunes with your headlights facing M-109.
- June 18 (4:00 pm-6:00 pm); Take a look at our closest star, the sun, using a solar telescope.
- August 13 (9:00 pm-11:00 pm); Celebrate the last day of the Port Oneida Fair with a dual Star Party event. Finish off your afternoon with a solar viewing, and then come back after dinner for a Star Party treat. Observe the beautiful summer Night Sky constellations, along with the moon, Mars, Saturn and possibly a few bright Perseid meteors. Don’t forget to bring a blanket to make your night sky viewing more comfortable.
- September 3 (9:00 pm-11:00 pm); Experience the late summer night sky in near total darkness tonight, and explore the Milky Way, Mars, and Saturn. The Twilight Talk will be “100 years of recognizing and studying the Andromeda Nebula as a galaxy.” Please park in the row furthest from the dunes with your headlights facing M-109.
- October 21 (8:00 pm-10:00 pm); This date marks the 46th Anniversary of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Celebrate the National Lakeshore’s birthday with the final Star Party of the Celestial Centennial Summer. This will be a great occasion to observe the night sky, Mars, star clusters, nebulae, and distant galaxies. The Twilight Talk will be “100 years of the expanding universe.” Please park at Picnic Mountain; the next right after Stop #2.
When You Go
Stargazing is an activity that requires very little in the way of gear. Sleeping Bear Dune rangers and GTAS organizers (identified by their red glow-in-the-dark bracelets at each event) ask that attendees bring along bug spray and a flashlight for walking to and from your car.
But there are also a few other items you can bring to make the experience more comfortable and enjoyable.
Even in summer, temperatures can sometimes plummet when the sun goes down over Northern Michigan. So plan your wardrobe accordingly. Remember that locations near the water can be anywhere from five to 10 degrees cooler than what you’ll experience farther inland, especially if there’s any wind. Bring a lightweight lawn chair, stool or at least a beach towel to sit on. If your group contains any star-watchers under the age of 10, it’s a good idea to bring along some snacks and bottled water.
A telescope is to an astronomer what fishing rod is to trout angler. But for an amateur stargazer trying to navigate the night sky for the first time, an ordinary binocular is really all you need. Almost every household has a moderate power binocular lying around. For example, a 7×50mm binocular commonly used for bird watching can reveal seven times as much information as can be seen by the unaided eye.
Get an App
While the expert astronomers at every Sleeping Bear star party are there to help you unravel the mysteries of the heavens, modern technology can also provide a little extra help. Digital star charts offer a great way to navigate the night sky and there’s plenty available for smartphones and tablets.
To check out the complete list of “star party” dates, times and locations, visit the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore stargazing webpage.