Observatory Park at The Turner Farm in Great falls is becoming the place to be for major astronomical events. Every Friday night, in clear weather, amateur astronomers gather there with their telescopes to look at the stars: larger crowds gathered to view the Leonid meteor showers, the planet Mars, and last Saturday, for a total lunar eclipse.
Great Falls is known for its dark skies and at The Turner Farm, there is room on the spacious grounds to set up telescopes.
The scene at the park last Saturday, when a total lunar eclipse was scheduled to bring total darkness just after 8 p.m., was typical.
Some people brought their own telescopes and shared generously with those who just walked into the park to watch one of nature’s most amazing light shows.
Initially, the sky was clear, but by the time the earth’s shadow had moved across the face of the moon, a thin layer of clouds had a gauzy effect that obscured the details of the moon’s re-emergence.
Still, about 120 park visitors were undaunted by the cloud cover and the cold. Some lay on the ground in sleeping bags to watch.
Others walked around, meeting people who appeared to be strangers in the dark, but then, in conversation, were recognized as friends.
Richard Follin, a kindergartner at Great Falls Elementary School who came to the park with his family to observe the eclipse, looked through a telescope to check the progress of the “penumbra,” the outer part of the earth’s shadow, across the face of the moon. Then he explained how a lunar eclipse works.
“The sun shines on the earth. The earth shines its shadow on the moon, and that makes the starts shine brighter,” he said.
PATTI AND CHRIS Kaiser of North Point in Reston are both serious amateur photographers who specialize in nature, the sky, and landscapes. Both had digital cameras mounted on tripods during the eclipse.
They had also visited Observatory Park on Oct. 30, during a display of the northern lights, or “aurora borealis.”
Asked which was more spectacular, Patti had a ready answer.
“Truly, the aurora borealis,” she said Patti. “It is such an unusual sight. It’s a special kind of phenomenon, especially understanding how it happens.”
“I’m on an astro-alert site list [on the Internet] that tells when there are coronal mass ejections (CMEs) related to solar flares given off by sunspots. They eject the CMEs which travel millions of miles to reach earth’s atmosphere,” she said, with the caveat that she wasn’t offering a scientific explanation.
“I am not a physicist,” she said. “I just kind of listen on the web and keep my ears tuned to when you might be able to see something like that. Chris and I are inveterate skywatchers.”
“I am interested in photography, and I am interested in what’s going on in the sky,” said Chris Kaiser, Patti’s husband.
“I went to Observatory Park because it’s a really good dark sky site. I have used Crockett Park in Fauquier County. Some of my comet pictures were taken from a soccer field in North Point, just any place I could get away from the lights and cars and streetlights,” he said.
But since Observatory Park opened last year he uses it frequently, said Kaiser.
“The park is very special,” said Patti Kaiser. “It is probably the only dark sky spot in the Washington D.C. area.
“WITH THE WHOLE movement toward dark skies, and turning the streetlamps down so they don’t pollute the sky, the sky is clear of light pollution so you can see the sky” in Great Falls, she said.
”It’s not 100 percent clear, but it is clear of most of the light pollution you see in cities and around shopping centers.”
Like his wife, Chris Kaiser also photographed the aurora borealis from The Turner Farm’s parking lot on Oct. 30. “I enjoyed seeing the east with which we were able to capture the vibrant color,” Christ Kaiser said. “It was quite a thrill to see the results.”
Patti’s photograph of the northern sky over Great Falls during the aurora borealis display was published on the front day of the Washington Post on Halloween Day. “That was the first time I’ve been paid for a photograph that was published,” Kaiser said.
The Kaisers watched the first half of the lunar eclipse, which took about three hours.
“We were very happy to see that it was clear to begin with,” said Patti. “Watching that gives us a sense of our place on earth. It was very pleasing to watch, at least the first half.”