Observing the night sky offers peace and quiet, fresh air, time to reflect on your place in the universe—not to mention the fun of seeing Saturn’s rings. “You can’t look at Saturn just once,” says Geoff Chester, public-affairs officer at the US Naval Observatory. “It’s like potato chips.”
Washington’s proximity to astronomers at NASA and elsewhere means there are many groups for amateur stargazers. The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (novac.com) is one of the country’s largest clubs of its kind. Yearly dues of $30 give access to observation sites in Fairfax, Loudoun, and Fauquier counties as well as nearly 1,000 knowledgeable members.
NOVAC’s mentoring program pairs members with similar telescopes. For those interested in joining, a good place to start is the group’s free monthly public viewing at Crockett Park in Midland, where members can answer questions. Dates and times vary; check the Web site for details.
In conjunction with the National Park Service, National Capital Astronomers (capitalastronomers.org) welcomes nonmembers monthly from April through November for its free Exploring the Sky series on Rock Creek Park’s Military Field (south of Military and Glover roads, Northwest, near the Rock Creek Nature Center). During cloudy conditions, participants may go to the Rock Creek Planetarium for a simulated experience. For a schedule, visit nps.gov/rocr/planetarium or call 202-895-6070.
Hands on Optics (26437 Ridge Rd., Damascus; 301-482-0000; handsonoptics.com) is a good place to get outfitted with a telescope and advice. Owner Gary Hand, a former astronomy teacher, has a seven-question plan—including “Are you going to take it on a plane?” and “Is weight an issue?”—to help you pick an instrument. Hand’s Web site offers information on planetariums, museums, and clubs.
Every clear Friday from sunset to 11:30 pm, the Analemma Society (analemma.org) opens its observatory park in Great Falls for free. Analemma provides some of the darkest skies in the immediate area and a handful of amateur astronomers who can give newcomers their first gaze into a telescope.
Two magazines—and their Web sites—have interesting articles, resources, and photos: Sky & Telescope (skyandtelescope.com) and Astronomy (astronomy.com).