Stargazers take advantage of desert setting to view celestial wonders

Mike Rood uses a globe and a lamp to illustrate how the Earth’s seasons affect the weather during the summer solstice stargazing event Wednesday at Imperial Valley Desert Museum in Ocotillo.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017

OCOTILLO – Astronomy enthusiasts scanned the Imperial Valley desert skies Wednesday night searching for known planets, stars and constellations in celebration of the summer solstice at the Imperial Valley Desert Museum.

Sitting atop a foothill, which is part of a mountain range that serves as a natural barrier separating San Diego and Imperial counties, the museum provided an ideal location for star gazing.The absence of city lights in an open desert sky enhanced the experience.

Marcie Rodriguez, the museums’ education coordinator, said stargazers converged to celebrate the museum’s second annual summer solstice stargazing event in spite of soaring temperatures into the low 120s. Blessed with a slight warm breeze, children and their parents were not deterred from visiting the museum to learn about astronomy.

Right before dusk, participants sat in an air conditioned classroom listening to guest speaker and amateur astronomer Mike Rood. He provided a checklist, complete with illustrations, to help participants identify well-known stars and groups of stars from the celestial expanse.

About the summer solstice, he said: “Today is the day for us to have the longest day of the year. It is 14 hours, 18 minutes and 30 seconds long.”

Using a globe and a lamp, Rood explained the Earth’s rotation and how it affects the seasons. After the lecture, attendees were asked to choose any of the five telescope stations which were set up behind the museum building — away from the slight warm breeze. Each telescope was pointed towards a particular planet, star, or constellation.

“Ocotillo is a neat place to do this because we’re away from the light pollution of towns and cities,” Rood said. “We are in the desert. It’s a little warm tonight, but I think we had a good time.”

According to Rood, the planets Jupiter and Saturn are easiest to see this time of year. Included in the checklist he provided were the stars Polaris, Regulas, Arcturus, Spica, Antares, and Vega. Asterism (a prominent group of stars smaller than a constellation) included the Big Dipper and Little Dipper. Other constellations were Leo, Herdsman, Virgo, Scorpius, and Lyra.

Jovanna Vizcarra and her mother, Cathy Vizcarra, said they both enjoyed gazing at the stars. That night, however, was special for them. Jovanna, a recent graduate from Imperial Valley College, will continue her studies at Chico State University this coming school year.

“I’m going to be leaving for school soon,” Jovanna said. “So my mom and I want to spend some quality time looking at the stars. We love to do that. We saw Jupiter and the four moons around it. It is really a cool feeling.”

Her mother, Cathy Vizcarra, said, “We’ve seen it plenty of times just doing star gazing. But this was a very different and unique experience to look through a telescope. Yeah, we’re enjoying it.”

Another couple said they also wanted to see the stars. Sharon Mousel invited her friend, Leif Burns, to the summer solstice celebration. She said this is her fourth time to participate in stargazing events. “I just like looking at the stars in an area where its not too bright. There are so many things that I don’t know about the universe. There are so many stars and constellations, I had no idea they even existed.”

The bespectacled Leif Burns was Mousel’s driver for the 26-mile drive trek from El Centro to Ocotillo. He had taken astronomy classes at Imperial Valley College, but had expressed difficulty gazing at the stars, that, according to him, was attributed to his poor eyesight.

However, some of the stargazers had an easier method of identifying the stars by using a smart phone. All that was needed was to open an app and point the cell phone towards the sky. Instantly, the stars, planets, or constellations appeared on the small screen with their corresponding names.

According to Marcie Rodriguez, 50 people participated in the summer solstice celebration. Snacks and water were provided Rogers & Rogers Auto for the stargazers.

“Everybody ought to look up and enjoy the sky wherever they are,” Rood said.