Since ancient times, the nighttime sky has offered a sense of wonder and a mystical glimpse into what lies beyond our planet. Twinkling stars, faraway planets and other celestial objects dance their way across the sky in a captivating light show, offering families a front row seat to a spectacular sight that doesn’t require expensive equipment to enjoy!
“Astronomy is one of the most accessible of the sciences. It’s right overhead every day,” said Mike Brake, the observing and outreach coordinator with the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club. “All you really have to do is get away from city lights and look up.”
While there are many complex and far away features, the moon is a great place to start your stargazing journey. You can learn about the moon’s cycle, how it got all the craters and about the people who have walked on the moon and how they got there.
With the naked eye, you can see stars, planets, meteors, satellites and more. With as little as a good pair of binoculars, nebulas and galaxies become visible.
“The main idea is to learn what’s up there,” Brake said. “There are dozens of sky maps available to help you find planets, major constellations and more. This fall, Saturn and Mars will be well placed in the evening sky.”
As your interest and experiences expand, so can your tools. Since there is a wide variety of technologies potentially available, Brake recommends starting small and giving yourself time to master the equipment.
“Complex, computer-controlled telescopes can be programmed to give you a tour of the night sky,” said Tom Arnold, director of the Kirkpatrick Planetarium at Science Museum Oklahoma. “It is a wonderful way to experience the night sky, but it is important to understand what really interests you as that should shape what you buy.”
It is also important to keep your expectations realistic, Brake said.
“Your telescope isn’t going to look like something taken by the Hubble telescope. That light could have been traveling for 40 million years to get here! And stay away from department store telescopes,” Brake added. “They are typically made of plastic and are frankly just toys.”
Expect quality equipment to cost around $200, Brake said. In fact, one of the largest telescope dealers in the U.S. is located right here in the metro, a family-owned business in Norman called Astronomics.
Books, websites and apps can help your family learn, but nothing quite replaces a hands-on experience. Weather permitting, on the first Friday of each month, the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club sets up their telescopes at Paseo’s First Friday Gallery Walk. Their Sidewalk Astronomy events are a great time to ask questions and learn from experienced astronomers. The club also operates an observatory in western Oklahoma called Cheddar Ranch. The observatory is equipped with a 14-inch telescope and a brand new 30-inch telescope, which is the largest public access telescope in the state.
“The observatory is open to club members but visitors are welcome,” Brake said. “Families can get in touch with our club via our website or Facebook page. Anyone is welcome to join our club as well.”
Black Mesa State Park
In the far, most-western part of Oklahoma’s panhandle, Black Mesa State Park’s remote location leaves the city lights far behind, serving up some of the darkest skies around. Well-known for its star clarity, the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club collaborates with other clubs in Texas to host the annual Okie-Tex Star Party, Sept. 11-18. Pitch a tent and enjoy the night sky in a whole new way.
Black Mesa is also a fantastic place to view the annual Perseid Meteor Shower, which peaks in early August, as the earth passes through the debris left by the Comet Swift-Tuttle.
Osage Hills State Park
The lush forest and serene waters of Osage Hills State Park in northeast Oklahoma offer visitors a nightcap of unspoiled views. The small towns that surround the park provide easy access to modern conveniences without all the light pollution to get in your way.
Roman Nose State Park
One of the seven original state parks in Oklahoma and located near Watonga in northwest Oklahoma, Roman Nose State Park is a popular family destination, offering amazing views of the gypsum rock cliffs, natural springs, exciting hikes and a variety of places to drop a fishing line. But, the excitement doesn’t have to stop when the sun goes down. The area’s dark skies usher in a beautiful nighttime show.
Alabaster Caverns State Park
While Alabaster Caverns, also located in northwest Oklahoma near Woodward and Waynoka, is known for large gypsum caves, bats and spelunking, this remote park won’t disappoint after the sun goes down. Be on the lookout for bats and more, as you enjoy some of Oklahoma’s remote skies.
Little Sahara State Park
Since remote is what any stargazer is looking for, Little Sahara State Park Park near Waynoka certainly fits the bill. The acres of sand dunes glisten in the moonlight.
If adventuring into the wilderness isn’t for your family, Oklahoma is also home to two indoor planetariums. The Kirkpatrick Planetarium at Science Museum Oklahoma and James E. Bertelsmeyer Planetarium at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum offer a climate-controlled way to explore the stars.