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Looking up with some skywatchers

“Beautiful and free,

The song of galaxies

Reaching far beyond the milky way.”

— Phil Wickham

Tonight, gather the kiddos in the wide open spaces and point your faces to the eastern horizon. Slow down and watch as the full harvest blood moon rises, totally eclipsed by our Earth shadow at 7:51 p.m. Wait for a sliver of light to reappear. This could take a while, but meanwhile you could talk and munch popcorn. Look up together.

I learned about the Southern Oregon Skywatchers many summer moons ago when my family and I camped at Lost Creek Lake. We were fortunate to land there when an enthusiastic gathering of astronomy geeks had set up high-powered telescopes. They were there to locate and track, up close and personal, planets, nebula, star clusters and various outer space pageantry. It was a star party, one of several enjoyed throughout the year.

They were kind enough to share their telescopes and captured quarry with us. We climbed steps to peek through one of them, just two or three steps up to the moon and stars. But the experts said if we wanted to see Saturn and Jupiter, we would have to return around 4 a.m. Heavenly bodies, like newborns, show up when they do.

I didn’t set an alarm, but something woke me in time. I crept through the trailer to where our daughter, Emily, slept. “Em, do you want to see Saturn with its rings and Jupiter?”

She may have mistaken me for a dream in her groggy state, but she came around and remembered. We threw jackets over PJs and ventured out, picking our way through the chill and dark, over dewy grass, to where a beast of a telescope stood as sentinel. It was manned by a shadowy figure waiting for the curious — a pair who couldn’t resist the lure of real planets, the originals, as they rolled and moved along in their majestic promenade.

We saw them. They seemed, through an eyepiece, as nearby as the trees growing there, like if we stretched out our arms we could pet their surfaces, feel the craters like lichens on a stone, and move our fingers inside their cold gases. But at least 746 million miles of the mystery and mastery of space separated us.

I’ve tracked the Southern Oregon Skywatchers with a column in view and recently joined them for their monthly meeting. They gather in a darkened planetarium on the campus of North Medford High School. Thirty or so others sat on a circle of cushy benches. I sat back and watched as pictures of planets and moons projected onto the domed ceiling built for showcasing the wonders of outer space.

Robert Black is the planetarium director and astronomy teacher at NMHS, and our presenter for an evening packed with exciting events taking place in our heavens — extravagant reveals happening while most of us aren’t looking. One of Black’s students, Molly Woodard, started things off with a well done presentation about a balloon launch that she and club members had facilitated in Central Oregon.

Black shared photos and information about the recent NASA project to Pluto called New Horizons. I was relieved to learn that all nine planet neighbors I came to know and love in Miss Ruffin’s third-grade class are still playing nicely in our solar system. Pluto may be a dwarf planet, but lack of stature hasn’t alienated it from the family group. Black also shared about a total solar eclipse set to occur on Aug. 21, 2017.

The SOS team is one of only 57 astronomy teams chosen by NASA, with special training and equipment provided by them, to chronicle the phenomena.

All SOS meetings and star parties are open to the public. For the latest schedule, see www.orskywatchers.org.

But, tonight! There’s a big moon on the rise.

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer living in Eagle Point. Reach her at pcdover@hotmail.com and visit her Facebook page at Peggy Dover-writer.