For the News & Eagle
The stars. The moon. The planets. meteors and comets. The Milky Way. Unknown flying objects.
The night sky has an amazing variety of things to see, but it’s not always easy when you’re in an area where there are lights everywhere, which will dampen your stargazing.
Luckily, Oklahoma is home to some of the most pristine dark skies in the United States, free from light pollution. Black Mesa State Park outside of Kenton is the only place in the state to score a 1 on the Bortle Dark Sky Scale.
“Dark Skies is a real value. They attract tourists from all over the world,” said Bobette Doerrie during her presentation on stargazing and astrotourism at the Red Carpet Country Tourism Conference in August at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. Doerrie cited that the annual Okie-Tex Star Party at Black Mesa each fall draws visitors from around the world, including Australia and Europe.
Doerrie, a former professor of natural sciences (biology, chemistry, earth and space sciences, physics and astronomy) at NWOSU-Woodward, is a member of the Starcreek Astronomical Society.
Starcreek meets regularly on the second Saturday of each month in either Woodward or the Selman Living Lab (SLL) southwest of Freedom. SLL is a field station for the University of Central Oklahoma to conduct biological research and studies in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation. SLL is also an observatory with two astronomy domes, several programmable telescopes and a teaching facility, as well as bunkhouses.
“It has stunning scenery. There are so many research opportunities out there,” said Gloria Caddell, SLL Director and UCO Dean of Mathematics and Science. Her husband, Bill Caire, is the one who set up the living laboratory in 1998 after Betty Selman of historic Selman Ranch donated the land surrounding Selman Caves.
A memorandum of understanding was drawn up between the Starcreek Astronomical Society and UCO by Steven Maier, who was then a physics professor at NWOSU and is now Northwestern’s faculty dean.
SLL isn’t quite as free of light pollution as Black Mesa, but it’s pretty close, Doerrie said. The sky over SLL and nearby Alabaster Caverns State Park is a 2 on the Bortle Dark Sky Scale. Other locations in the state ranked #2 are Gloss Mountains State Park near Fairview and Southeastern Oklahoma in the Choctaw Nation near Talimena State Park and the Ouachita Mountains.
“It’s an amazing landscape,” Doerrie said of the gypsum mounds surrounding the Selman Living Lab. She and her husband Jerome currently reside in the Texas Panhandle but often return to Northwest Oklahoma to meet up with other stargazers.
According to experts, late September to early October is a fantastic time to view the night sky in Oklahoma. The Starcreek Astronomical Society recently partnered with the Kansas Astronomical Observers to host a star party at the Selman Living Lab in the Wichita, Kan area. The Oklahoma City Astronomy Club hosted its 39th annual Okie-Tex Star Party at Camp Billy Joe outside of Kenton last week.
Astrophotographer David Gaede said the best time to see the Milky Way this fall is October 15-28.
“You need to stay away from the city lights and face south,” he advised. If you can’t travel to one of the above dark sky locations, Gaede recommends driving at least 20 miles outside of the city to ensure less light pollution.
As a storm chaser for Channel 8 in Tulsa, Gaede has been an observer and videographer of the Oklahoma skies for nearly 50 years. He grew up in Duncan but has lived in Owasso for the past three decades. His passion turned to astrophotography in 2018 and several of his photos have appeared in Oklahoma Today magazine. His favorite place to photograph the Milky Way is the Gloss Mountains.
Astronomers strongly recommend planning ahead when stargazing by following these tips:
• Watch the weather forecast. If it’s cloudy or raining, you can’t see anything. And you don’t want to be in the desert when there are thunderstorms due to flash flooding, Gaede said.
• Track the phases of the moon. The moon can obscure your view of the starry sky and Milky Way, Gaede said. He suggested downloading the PhotoPills app (photopills.com) to find out the current positions of the Sun, Moon and Milky Way.
• Get a star chart. You can download the SkyView app (there is a free “lite” version available) to learn planets and constellations in real time by pointing your smartphone to the sky. You can also go to skymaps.com and print them out for free each month, Doerrie said.
• Have the right gear. Sure, you can observe the majestic evening sky with the naked eye, but it helps to have a zoom with your smartphone, camera, binoculars, or telescope. Cover a flashlight with a red cloth or taillight tape, as red light protects your night vision.
• Know your location in daylight, especially when you’re off the beaten path, so you know how to find it in the dark.
“Use Google Maps and pin it,” Gaede said.
• Safety first. Pack a first aid kit, jumper cables, and bug spray. If you’re traveling alone, share your schedule and coordinates with someone else, or download a tracker app on your and their smartphones, e.g. B.Life360. And wrap up warm as temperatures drop after sunset.
• Join a group. The Starcreek Astronomical Society of Northwest Oklahoma has members of all ages, locations, and experiences, but all share a passion for the night sky. There are also astronomy clubs in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Wichita.
“We’re always looking for a better view,” said Jerome, husband of Bobette Doerrie. The benefit of joining an astronomy club is that you have someone to sit around with, talk to and share your observations.
Enid’s own Jake Cook has been peering into the universe for over 10 years trying to find a local astronomy club but finding many disbanded. He ended up surfing NASA’s website looking for one and came across Starcreek via the Night Sky Network. He officially became a member last summer.
Cook said he chose Starcreek because “they were so friendly and they were the closest thing to me.” He encouraged anyone in the Enid area who was even remotely interested in the night sky to consider attending a Starcreek gathering or star party.
To learn more about how to join the Starcreek Astronomical Society, go to starcreek.org. Annual membership is $5 for individuals, $10 for families.
For Fred Gassert, a longtime member of the Kansas Astronomical Observers, his interest in stargazing exploded while serving as a Girl Scout leader for his daughters’ troupe. After the local Girl Scouts camp bought new telescopes and started an astronomy club, the camp leader asked him for support, claiming he was the astronomy expert (since he knew something about telescopes), Gassert said, laughing.
“Fred has gone from stargazing to building telescopes,” agreed Richard Meredith, a stargazer from Kansas. The two met the Doerries and other Starcreek members years ago at an Okie-Tex Star Party.
“How far do you want to go?” asked Meredith. Haley’s comet spurred his interest in astronomy in the 1980s, and it found its way to the Lake Afton Public Observatory outside of Goddard, Kansas. This led him to join the Kansas Astronomical Observers.
Kansas Astronomical Observers is $20 per year and includes membership in the Astronomical League; Visit kaowichita.com for more information.
The sky above is waiting for you to step out and notice.
“You can see pictures of the Grand Canyon, but wouldn’t you rather go to the Grand Canyon yourself?” Gasert said.
Replogle is a freelance writer who provides content for Enid News & Eagle, a publication of CNHI LLC.