Local stargazers escape to the desert

Star party
Stargazers look at the moon and visible planets before the sun sets during a public star party at the Mojave National Preserve on Saturday, May 11, 2013. Members of the Old Town Sidewalk Astronomers, made up of residents from the San Gabriel Valley, have arranged the free events in the Mojave desert since 2008.
(Photo by Tiffany Kelly / Times Community News)

They traveled more than 200 miles from the San Gabriel Valley to reach one of the darkest corners in Southern California.

Three hours before sunset on Saturday, half a dozen amateur astronomers unloaded high-powered telescopes onto a concrete platform next to a group campground in the Mojave National Preserve, about 115 miles east of Barstow.

One of the instruments would later be used to tour galaxies — including our own — while others would show the Cassini Division between Saturn’s rings, and the moons orbiting Jupiter.

Away from the harsh lights of a populated city, the night sky can reveal celestial objects that usually appear hidden from view. So twice a year, members of the Old Town Sidewalk Astronomers come here to get away and give free tours of the universe.


Jane Houston Jones, a senior outreach specialist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wheeled out a reflector telescope that looked like a cannon from the back of her van. Her husband, Morris “Mojo” Jones, was already setting up a large refractor telescope.

Together, the couple has a collection of 13 telescopes. They met in the late ‘90s at an observatory and their first few dates were at breakfast after staying up all night peering into telescopes. “It’s the thing we have in common more than anything else,” said Morris Jones, who works as a software engineer at Disney.

As they set up a stargazing deck with the others, more cars arrived from the dusty, narrow road leading up to the site. By 8 p.m., a group of about 70 people had formed. Waiting for the sky to dim, they feasted on a potluck of homemade pozole, vegetable soup and kale salad.

It was the largest turnout so far for the 10th star party organized by the group and the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy. The group plans two parties a year: One in the spring and one in the fall.


David Lamfrom, a program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association, prepped the crowd for the show. He told them it felt like he was seeing the night sky for first time when he first stayed in the preserve after dark.

“You feel like you were robbed of an experience that other people have had, historically, and that we no longer have because we’re not being thoughtful about where we point light,” he said.

People were invited to view sunspots on the Sun through a solar telescope and a crescent moon up close before it got dark, but the crowds didn’t really form on the stargazing deck until late in the evening.

Catherine Spiers looked for clusters, galaxies and other objects in the sky with a sketchbook in hand. The 16-year-old Pasadena resident began attending star parties as a toddler.

Her dad, Gary Spiers, works in optics at JPL and is a member of the Old Town Astronomers. He manned one of the telescopes, using an iPad to control it. About 14 years ago, his wife bought him his first telescope. Now, he and his two daughters each have their own instrument.

“It’s always been a family activity,” he said.

By midnight, the crowd had dissipated as stargazers went to sleep in nearby tents or inside cars. Others sat around the camp fire the tell stories or sing. The Milky Way had just started to become visible over the mountains in the east. In a couple of hours, it would pass overhead.

It’s a sight that people often confuse for clouds, said Jane Houston Jones. “If you live in the city, this is not something that you will ever see.”


“It’s a changing experience to see that we’re inside a galaxy and we’re seeing the arm that is circling around us visible in the sky,” she said.

Morris Jones said he thought about bringing equipment for astrophotography — another one of his hobbies — but he decided against it. The activity, he said, is solitary and it would defuse the purpose of a public star party. Instead, he scanned the dark skies with a pair of binoculars, spotting objects like the globular cluster Omega Centauri and inviting people to take a look at it through the telescope.

“There’s a group in Joshua Tree that puts a camera on a telescope and projects it on a screen,” he said. “And I say, you’re losing the whole thing there. You’re losing the emotional connection when you have the actual photons of that galaxy that’s 25 million light years away going into your eye.”


Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ and on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.