A Night Under the Stars with the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit

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Photo by Samuel Yang | Staff Photographer

Jessica Gang
Opinions Editor

Last Saturday, April 13, the night sky twinkled a little brighter as the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History hosted its monthly Star Party at the Palmer Observatory. Star Parties, which are held at the museum on the second Saturday of every month during the year, are designed to help the Santa Barbara community learn more about outer space.

At every Star Party, the museum allows the public to use private telescopes (including the 20-inch state-of-the-art telescope at the Palmer Observatory) while astronomers from the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit (SBAU) share cosmic knowledge and answer questions.  

Starting around 8 p.m. on Saturday, museum patrons of all ages milled on the grassy lawns and the stone paths adjacent to the Palmer Observatory and the MacVeagh House, traversing between various telescope stations. Each station was manned by a member of the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit, a club made up of astronomy lovers dedicated to serving the Santa Barbara community.

The motto of the Astronomical Unit is “A Local Gateway to the Stars Above,” and true to its word, the mission of the Astronomical Unit is to help the Santa Barbara community learn about astronomy through a series of outreach programs at local schools, workshops (such as the Telescope Workshop, where you can make your own telescope), monthly meetings, talks with local astronomy experts, and much more.

In an interview with The Bottom Line, volunteer Pat McPartlin described the significance of the Star Party, noting that her favorite part of the night is always “sharing the sky with [event attendees].” McPartlin has been part of the Astronomical Unit for 34 years and counting and described the club’s members as a bunch of “enthusiasts,” whose purpose is to “give astronomy information to anyone who wants to listen”.

Sean Kelly, SBAU member and astronomy professor at Santa Barbara City College, expressed similar sentiments in another interview with TBL. Kelly invites his students to every Star Party, giving them “a chance to experience … the stars in a concrete way.” Kelly added that it is always “wonderful to have people who have never looked through a telescope have that opportunity, [and to] be able to share that with them.”

While the astronomical unit primarily consists of “retired engineers and scientists,” according to Kelly, event attendees ranged from toddlers to college students, mainly from Westmont College, UCSB, and SB City College. Attendees moved from station to station, all of which were manned by members of the Astronomical Unit, who used laser pointers to show astronomical bodies — like the Orion Belt, the Little Dipper, and the Andromeda Nebula — to the untrained eye.

In an interview with TBL, SBCC student Anna Hernandez described how the astronomy class she’s taking at SBCC has enhanced her appreciation for Star Parties and other astronomical events, saying that while she “has seen most of the [astronomical events] shown in lab,” SBCC students learn in lab many of the practical skills that members of the astronomical unit display to the public during public exhibitions, like using telescopes and searching for stars.

In spite of the cosmic nature of the Star Party, it’s heartening to know that for the volunteers involved, the most awe-inspiring part of the night is its focus on the Santa Barbara community.

When asked what he hopes onlookers will take from their experience, Professor Kelly stated that he hopes his audience simply, sees “something beautiful,” before adding that it is worth [taking] a few minutes out of our busy lives to …  [have] a moment of peace and reflection” about the enormity of the world that we inhabit.