Sidewalk Astronomy Made Easy

When it comes to showing off the sky to the public, the toughest sell has got to be convincing a passerby to look through a (safely filtered) telescope at the Sun.

Passersby enjoy views of the first-quarter Moon through the 12½-inch reflector owned by Jane Houston Jones (in green jacket). Jane and other Old Town Sidewalk Astronomers often set up in the pedestrian-rich shopping district of Pasadena, California.
Morris Jones
But taking a peek at the crescent Moon or Saturn? A piece of cake! I've lost count of all the amazed "Oohs!" and "Ahhs!" that I've gotten by giving someone that priceless first view through a telescope.

That's the thinking behind a remarkable grass-roots effort to deploy an army of amateurs onto streets around the world on Saturday, April 12th, for International Sidewalk Astronomy Night.

ISAN is the brainchild of Donna Smith, a member of the famed Sidewalk Astronomers led by John Dobson. Last year's inaugural ISAN event involved an estimated 500 telescopes, 1,100 amateurs, and 25,000 members of the public at 154 locations in 28 countries.

"Last year we spent literally weeks contacting clubs and individuals," Smith told me. But this year the task was easier: "We just contacted our mailing list with the date and let them run with it. We are extremely pleased because it shows how much willingness, or actually eagerness there is for amateurs to take part in these public and international events and to use their initiative to make them successful."

OK, so maybe you've never tried sidewalk astronomy. I can hear your excuses now: "I don't know enough about the sky" or "There's too much light pollution." Well, here's your big chance! This weekend there'll be a nice first-quarter Moon, Saturn and Regulus are gliding together high overhead, and the Big Dipper is in plain view. If you need more inspiration to get you out the door, take 2½ minutes to check out last year's ISAN event from Byron Bay, Australia.

What are you waiting for?! Grab that scope, and make a difference! Then leave a comment below to share your experience with others.

8 thoughts on “Sidewalk Astronomy Made Easy

  1. Percival Hanley

    After reading the article on the Sky and Telescope Site, I took my 8″ LX-90 just outside the entrance to a nearby popular Bar & Restaurant. As people came and went I invited them to view but most automatically came over and enquired what was happening and asked to take a look. I got so many wows, ohh’s and ahhh’s, Oh My God’s, even Oh Shit’s. The feature object I focussed on was Saturn, as I knew that would capture the awe of everyone. Some people asked if what they were seeing was real, some insisted it was something put inside the telescope. Many persons asked lots of questions which gave me an opportunity to explain astronomy and facts about the night sky. For me it was a rewarding night and many persons expressed their thanks for bringing such beauty which they have never seen, to their attention. I am located in the Caribbean Island of St.Kitts.

  2. Bruce Bembridge

    7 members of our village of 200 came out to the street to watch the stars. The beautiful constelations were framed by the rockie mountains. The show stoppers through spotting scopes were Saturn, Mars and of course Diana. Field, British Columbia is just west of the great divide so the skies are very dark and we are closer to our heavenly bodies. Thank you for organizing this event so more people can spend more time “looking up” all around the world…

  3. Matt Wedel

    I missed the official ISAN on Saturday, but Sunday night I had my telescope out on the front sidewalk to show Saturn to some friends before they left, and I ended up giving my neighbor and his two kids their first look at Saturn, the moon, Mars, and the Great Nebula in Orion. While his kids took turns looking, my neighbor said he would have to think about getting a telescope for them, so I sent him home with one of my (many) spare telescope catalogs. All in all, a successful night!

    The street is too well lit for deep-sky work but from now on when I am observing the moon or planets I will head to the front sidewalk instead of the backyard. It’s a great way to meet the neighbors, and giving someone that “Oh my god!” moment is one of the best things in the world.

  4. Sean

    Im from Southern Ontario Canada, on Saturday it was raining so i was able to do any observations, but on Sunday i took the scope out onto the sidewalk to re align my finderscope with a distant radio tower. It was about 630 p.m. and while still daylight, the moon was clearly visible, so i pointed the scope toward it, right as both of my neighbours were coming home. i got basically the same reactions, “Oh my god” and” Ive ever seen the moon so close”. Later on that night i focused in on Saturn and completely blew away my parents. all in all a good night.

  5. Hardy

    I missed ISAN but got in some sidewalk astronomy earlier this year. I had my Orion 8XT on the sidewalk in front of my house looking at some Lunar 100 features and could tell there was a party going on across the street. As time went on, my neighbor’s curiosity finally got the best of her and she told the others ‘I’ve got to go see what’s going on over there’. The whole bunch came over and the oohs and ahhs started in. We checked out Saturn after the moon and a good time was had by all. Another favorite of mine is to set up a lawn chair when ISS or other bright satellite is due overhead. That usually snags a walker or two and is good for a few WOWs.

  6. Dewey, EAAA V-P

    The weather did not cooperate with those of us in Pensacola Florida for this event. We were going to set up at the beach, but we had nothing but clouds to look at on April 11 & 12, the bad weather from the Mid-South followed me home. The EAAA will host more side walk gazes on the beach on the following dates; May 9 & 10, June 13 & 14, Aug 8 & 9, Sept 12 & 13, please drop by if you’re in the area.

  7. Dewey, EAAA V-P

    The weather did not cooperate with those of us in Pensacola Florida for this event. We were going to set up at the beach, but we had nothing but clouds to look at on April 11 & 12, the bad weather from the Mid-South followed me home. The EAAA will host more side walk gazes on the beach on the following dates; May 9 & 10, June 13 & 14, Aug 8 & 9, Sept 12 & 13, please drop by if you’re in the area.

  8. Cook

    Since we were clouded out on Apr 12 for the offical ISAN event, myself and 2 other members of the St. Louis Astronomical Society set up our equipment along a very busy strip of sidewalk in one of the entertainment centers in St. Louis this past Sunday.

    We have dubbed such activity Urban Guerilla Astronomy since Sidewalk Astronomers was already taken. All in all we had maybe 100 pedestrians stop by and get a view of Saturn and the moon once it had gotten high enough in the sky.

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