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A man peering into a telescope.

Universe in the Park is held at 12 Minnesota state parks through September 9. The free program comprises a short presentation at 8:30 p.m., followed by sky observing until 10 or 11 p.m.

A universe in the park

By Pauline Oo

July 14, 2006

Bring insect repellent, prepare some questions, and get ready to be wowed by the night sky. That's the advice Evan Skillman has for those who want to experience University of Minnesota's Universe in the Park.

Skillman, an astronomy professor at the U's Twin Cities campus, introduced the annual summer outreach program--comprising a public talk, slide show, and telescope viewing--to Minnesotans five years ago. Modeled after an equally successful project at the University of Wisconsin, the U's Universe in the Park is an effort to get the general public excited about modern astronomical research and provide an introduction to amateur astronomy--all in the midst of a Minnesota state park, far, far away from the sometimes blinding glare of city lights.

"Everybody has questions about astronomy," says Skillman. "Our program is a chance for people to get their answers in an interactive way from someone who works in the field. Also, it's after sunset in a state park and people are on vacation--so [the atmosphere is] very relaxed and casual." Skillman says the program attracts an average of about 30 people per event. "One time we had over 100 people--it depends on the weather and [if there's something special happening in the sky]," he adds. This summer, planet Jupiter takes the spotlight.

"Jupiter is up all summer," says Jessica Ennis, Universe in the Park coordinator. "[While] this is not unusual--and [it happens] every couple years--it is nonetheless a wonderful sight. Most times, you can see through the telescopes the four largest moons of Jupiter as well--the same ones Galileo saw that made him realize the Earth is not the center of the universe. You can also see the colored banding of Jupiter's atmosphere."

The program is held at 12 parks and nature centers through September 9. Events begin--even if it rains--with a short presentation at 8:30 p.m., followed by sky observing until 10 or 11 p.m. (the latter may be cancelled due to poor weather.) All events are free, but the park may require a vehicle permit for entry.

"We usually don't cancel because if there's an indoor theatre we can still give the 25-minute presentation," explains Skillman, who funds the program through a grant from NASA.

Catch the denizens of the night sky

During the academic school year, the astronomy departments on the Twin Cities and Morris campuses hold public viewings of the night sky on the roof of the Tate Laboratory of Physics and the Science building, respectively. Astronomy faculty on both campuses are heavily involved in public outreach programs. For example, the astronomy department on the Twin Cities campus also offers its services (free of charge) to groups--such as schools, churches, Girl and Boy Scouts, senior homes, and rotary clubs--that are looking for a more personalized event or class on a particular subject. Past topics have included the solar system, galaxies, and the history of astronomy.

Ennis, an astrophysics graduate student at the U, says the topics for each park may differ, and "it is decided by the staff working the event that day, and it's often not decided until the day of event, based on the demographics expected at the location and the expertise of the staff."

The three topics most often selected by the program staff, however, are energy, history of matter, and the solar system. "Recent space missions is also a popular topic," adds Ennis, who enjoys the opportunity the program offers to interact with the public.

"Seeing the enthusiasm and excitement on the faces of people who have never encountered the subject really makes me realize what I love about [astronomy]," says Ennis. "Teaching about astronomy is like opening up a whole new world--the universe--to the public. Also, it's truly not that much work [to put Universe in the Park together]. All of the graduate students who staff it are experts in astronomy, and most have done this program before. Likewise, the state parks also know the drill by now."

Over the years, Skillman and his team have refined the program, collaborating with more state parks and figuring out the audience-favorite topics or themes for the presentations.

In its first year, the program was held in only four parks close to the Twin Cities, but through trial and error, Skillman and his team figured out how and where to draw a crowd.

"We found that the camp grounds with the largest number of camping sites were actually where our largest audiences were," says Skillman. "We also fine-tuned our program by finding out what nights of the week work best, and then we hooked up with various camp naturalists who were happy to have us and help with publicity."

For a complete schedule, including and directions to each park, see Universe in the Park. To learn how to get a free star map, visit the Department of Astronomy.