Buehler Planetarium provides window to 'magnificent desolation'

The last rays of light play on the horizon as the tour of the night sky begins.

Fifteen minutes before sunset, only the moon gazes back at us, big as a beach ball through the eye of a telescope at the Buehler Planetarium & Observatory.

We are two days past the first quarter of the lunar cycle, the guide tells us. Through the lens, the moon appears as close as the tips of our noses. Larger than life, milky white with shadows of dark gray. Its surface scarred and rough, pockmarked by craters and mountains.

No sign of life.

But one faint reminder of our journey there. The guide points to a dark shaded area, clearly seen through the telescope. The Sea of Tranquility. Where the first men on the moon left their footprints during the Apollo 11 moonwalk.

"Magnificent desolation," astronaut Edwin Aldrin said.

The Buehler Planetarium and its domed theater opened in 1965. The patio observatory opened two years ago at the Davie campus of Broward Community College, shared by astronomy students and stargazers.

In the middle of Davie, directly beneath the airport flight path, the view of the stars is mottled by the city lights and the passing jets overhead.

On a clear night, you can see a few hundred stars. (In remote, darker spots, such as the Everglades, you can see about 7,000.)

When the sun finally sets in the western sky, we see Jupiter, 500 million miles from Earth. Jupiter, the mythic god of thunder and skies, is by far the largest planet in the solar system.

Through the telescope you see the massive planet's colored cloud bands, made of gases.

On a good night, you might see part of the Milky Way behind the Summer Triangle of stars, Vega, Deneb and Altair. You'll find Polaris, the North Star, the nearest bright star to the north spin axis of the Earth.

By no coincidence, rising Polaris aligns perfectly with the angled seam that cuts across the observatory pavement.

It was designed that way, explains planetarium director Susan Barnett.

Come August and September, planet-watchers will find Mars at its closest point to Earth in 57,000 years.

By the end of the sky tour, on a warm summer night, students have gathered at the observatory. They focus their telescopes, arranged in a semicircle, and sketch the moon by moonlight.

The observatory is a popular meeting spot for couples on a first date. And families with children. Romantics. Philosophers.

The eternal mystery and romance of the stars.

"I don't know the answer to the meaning of life," says Ardo VanWerven, who guides tonight's stargazers. "But I can answer almost anything related to astronomy."

Kathleen Kernicky can be reached at or 954-356-4725.