This winter, let's try not to take the moon for granted. The omnipresent, glowing orb can be "underappreciated," says Bell Museum planetarium programs coordinator Sarah Devine, who loves giving Minnesotans an introduction to lunar topography.
"There are some gorgeous details on the moon that you can see," Devine says. "If you look right along that line that separates the day side from the night side, called the terminator — that's where you get some great contrast, some depth and some detail of the craters, the mountain heights and the shadows that are cast across it."
Devine, who began the St. Paul museum's public telescope observatory program, also has the moon on her mind as she teaches visitors about NASA's plans for a manned lunar mission this decade — one that is set to launch the first woman and first person of color to the rocky sphere. The space agency plans to take a big initial step this winter, launching the Artemis 1 mission with no crew members on board.
At the Bell Museum, monthly "star parties" giving visitors a glimpse of the moon and beyond are currently a virtual experience. A camera at the back of the museum's telescope captures close-up images, which are streamed via Zoom (register and view the museum's full slate of activities at bellmuseum.umn.edu.)
Devine's December star party will be all about exploring meteors, meteorites and the Geminids meteor shower. Often one of the year's most spectacular, with some reporting 50 meteors per hour, the Geminids shower usually happens in the middle of the month.
In-person observatory nights might resume in January, depending on the state of the pandemic, Devine says. But while there's no substitute for seeing Saturn's rings through the scope with your own eyes, the virtual programming allows everyone to see at the same time, instead of waiting in line for a chance to peer through the scope, Devine adds.
"Parents with younger kids say it works out really nicely. They can do it from their house in their pajamas. They can make their bedtime and still participate," she says.
If you are looking to do some skygazing on your own, the Bell Museum also hosts a monthly Facebook Live event called "Minnesota Night Skies," giving a heads up about what to look for in the evening. A planetarium film festival will be held Nov. 24-28 (no shows on Thanksgiving), with some brand-new productions.
"We will fly out to the very edges of the universe, and we're going to do a little bit of everything," says Devine.