OC LIVE : Pssst--Want to See All the Big Stars? : Just Look up--With Help From Local Astronomers


Planet Hollywood isn’t the only place to see the stars around here. Granted, you probably won’t find a decent burger in Orange County planetariums or the various spots for outdoor stargazing. But given astronomers’ projections of a meteor storm and a three-planet alignment before Thanksgiving, with a little luck from the weather gods you’ll have a great view for some exciting celestial happenings.


Among your options: Stage an astronomer-led “star party” in the comfort of your own back yard. Or, for a few hundred dollars less, you could walk among the stars in a family-friendly planetarium show hosted by Orange County Astronomers every Sunday at Rancho Santiago College’s Tessmann Planetarium in Santa Ana.

Both are appropriate for kids as well as adults, organizers say. In fact, because kids often have had at least a passing introduction to astronomy in school, they may have a better grasp of the heavens than their elders do.


Still, adults who don’t know Orion’s Belt from an asteroid belt shouldn’t hesitate taking part in family stargazing, says Daniel Manrique, a lifelong astronomy student and instructor of two outdoor local astronomy programs in South Orange County.

“A lot of us get involved in making a living, taking care of our family, and we forget what we learned in school,” said Manrique, a computer programming manager by day. “But the study of the universe is something that touches all of us [because] we are all an integral part of it.”

Programs listed here are open to all, although some require you to put together your own group to take part.

They range from simple open-stargazing sessions for beginners to more in-depth programs for astronomy enthusiasts. If you plan to attend one of the outdoor programs, wear warm clothing and call ahead to check weather conditions. Reservations are suggested.

The Griffith Observatory’s recorded Sky Report offers regularly updated list of celestial events such as planetary alignments and meteor showers at (213) 663-8171.


Miles from the nearest development, rustic Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, adjacent to the Cleveland National Forest in southeast Orange County, is one of the last easily accessible places in the county where stray city light is not a major problem, notes senior park ranger Michael Brajdic.

Since the county recently lifted its ban on visitors under 18 to Caspers, imposed in the wake of two mountain lion attacks on children in 1986, the park is more welcoming to families than it has been for years. (A county spokesman says a five-year study showed that mountain lions pose no greater threat in Caspers than in any other wilderness area in the county, and in response to public requests, the park was reopened to youths, with some restrictions.)

Manrique, who first learned about astronomy during nighttime walks with his father in their native Peru, leads the programs at Caspers and at the neighboring Rancho Mission Viejo Land Conservancy (see below).

In his programs, he uses four telescopes and also weaves in bits of Greek mythology to help teach about the constellations. Manrique, who has taken astronomy courses but earned his degrees in computer science and biology, presents three to four sessions each month at the Caspers visitors center and at the more remote Old Corral area.

In the coming months, these include open stargazing (all ages) and deep sky--faint objects, which teaches ages 12 through adult about what he calls “some of the most fascinating objects in the sky,” including our own Milky Way galaxy. His junior astronomers class provides an overview of stargazing instruments and techniques, followed by telescope time for youths age 8 to 14.

On Nov. 17, Manrique’s “Instruments for Astronomical Observations” program (ages 12 and up) will include a look at the Leonid meteor shower, visible throughout the sky for the entire evening but peaking around midnight. Another highlight of nighttime viewing this fall comes during Thanksgiving week, when Venus, Jupiter and Mars will be in alignment, an occurrence that happens once every few years.

Manrique, who recently began offering programs for private groups and schools as well, charges $12 to $15 per course at Caspers; the open stargazing session is free for children under 7. For reservations and information, call him at (714) 248-5176.

For the past three years, Manrique has also been sharing his knowledge with visitors to the 1,200-acre Rancho Mission Viejo Land Conservancy.

“The kids especially are absolutely fascinated by this,” says conservancy director Jill Davison. “They’ll be looking through the telescope, and every time Daniel directs it to a new item in the sky, they go, ‘Whoa, cool!’ And the adults are pretty blown away by it, too.”

This wilderness area, a couple miles from Caspers off Ortega Highway, also is removed from most city light pollution, which can cloud views of the night sky by as much as 40% to 50%, said Davison.

Manrique hosts programs there on a monthly basis (his next is Dec. 8). Davison herself hopes to offer additional programs by next spring. The conservancy is now open only to visitors participating in their programs, which also include family-oriented nature hikes and wildlife biology sessions for children and adults. Fee for the astronomy programs is $4, all ages. For reservations, call Davison at (714) 489-9778.


Sheryl Johnson’s interest in astronomy was born while stargazing from her back-yard spa. Today, through her Laguna Niguel-based Adventures in Astronomy programs, she and her four associates venture into back yards, hilltops, schoolyards and just about anywhere else in Southern California where people gather to search the skies.

Johnson presents daytime and evening programs, which cost from $225 to $1,275 depending on the amount of equipment and staffing needed. Last week, she gave a presentation to more than 200 children and parents at Anaheim’s Loara Elementary School gathered in the school auditorium, in a program paid for by the school’s PTA.

The hands-on portions of her program include up to 20 telescopes, which she selects based on the size of the group and the type of viewing they want to do.

She has a number of robotic telescopes, including one programmed to find more than 64,000 deep-space objects, as well as several with a side-mounted crawl display that details the objects the scope is focused on.

By the end of most programs, participants of all ages have learned how to use even the most sophisticated equipment, she says.

Johnson says her programs are booked up to a year in advance by schools whose science programs have been curtailed due to budget cuts. She also leads planetarium shows for groups at two local sites: Rancho Santiago’s Tessmann Planetarium and the Orange Coast College planetarium.

Individuals are admitted as space allows for $2; be sure to call first. For details on Johnson’s programs, call her at (714) 347-9302.

Rancho Santiago College’s planetarium is open to the public during the Orange County Astronomers’ 45-minute planetarium shows Sundays at 2 p.m. The programs change monthly.

November’s show, “Star Clusters,” introduces visitors to the swarms of stars that orbit the galaxies. December’s “Tales in the Sky,” teaches about the constellations through the use of ancient legends. OCA member Rodrigo de la Mora recommends both for school-age children and up.

OCA also hosts public lectures geared to teen-agers and adults on the second Friday of the month at Chapman University’s science hall in Orange, organizes trips to local observatories (including its own Anza Observatory in the Santa Rosa mountains near Hemet) and operates an astronomical reference library.

The public can attend the group’s monthly “star parties,” which include informal discussion and observation time either at their Anza facility or at various sites in Silverado Canyon.

Call the group’s recorded Astronomers Star Line at (714) 995-2203 or member John Sanford, (714) 722-7900, for details .