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Sky watching in St. Charles County to continue through winter months

Sky watchingThe watch party was coming together – the night was dark, the crowd had gathered with lawn chairs and blankets were spread on the ground, and the cameras and telescopes were pointed skyward.

The only problem: The guest of honor was having a tough time hitting the stage. In fact, there was no moon to be found. Clouds and a little bit of rain cut back on viewing the eclipse on the night of Sept. 27 at Broemmelsiek Park south of Interstate 64, but that fact didn’t put a damper on the enthusiasm of the 75 to 100 people who came to watch it.

The watch party was sponsored by the St. Charles County Parks and Recreation Department and the Astronomical Society of Eastern Missouri and held at the astronomy viewing area in the park. The event was an example of one of a number of viewing opportunities offered by the county and society throughout the year. And interest in viewing the night sky is growing.

“It’s surprising sometimes how many people show up even when it’s cloudy here,” said Jim Twellman, executive director of the astronomical society.

Twellman and other society members directed arrivals to spots, answered questions, and watch radar on their cell phones, hoping clearing skies from the west would reach them before the eclipse ran its course

“We can’t predict the weather, it’s a natural phenomenon,” said Amy White, a volunteer with the society. “It’s like for bird watchers – the bird might be there, the bird might not be.”

But spectators haven’t been discouraged, despite a summer that featured a lot of rainy, cloudy viewing nights. White said there were perhaps as many as 800 people who turned out for a meteor shower in August. Clear nights can bring out as many as 100 to 200 people, she said.

Star gazers of all shapes and kinds – families with students, big dogs, spectators with cameras, astronomical enthusiasts and seniors looking for something to do – came to sit in the dark and look up to the sky and wait for the show to begin.

“Now that the economy is getting better, people are starting to buy telescopes,” White said. The society’s membership, which includes about 80 families and about 150 people total, is on the rise, she said.

The St. Charles County Library District also has a loaner program for telescopes. Society members show people how to use them. “That has brought people out in droves,” she said.

Dawn Thomas, from St. Charles, brought three of her kids and her husband, along with a grandma. It was hard to see how many people were there because Broemmelsiek Park is far enough out in the country where getting dark means pitch black.

“I’m gorgeous and I weigh like 102 pounds,” said Thomas, who could barely be discerned sitting with her family at a viewing area. They were still hoping the clouds would part.

“We home school so this counts for science and we actually just got done studying the solar system,” she said. “We have the telescope and that was from grandma for Christmas.”

Maureen Graham, of Wentzville, didn’t have a telescope but sat with a group, a family bulldog dozing nearby, hoping for the moon to peek out.

“It’s nice they (the county) provide this,” said Graham. “It’s a nice night to be out.”

Even though the park is in a largely rural setting – development that brings with it lights that obscure the night sky is beginning to encroach.

White said viewers can see the Milky Way from the viewing area but a dome of light from the Chesterfield area was visible. “Personally I don’t understand why car dealerships have to have their lights on all night long, I guess it makes them happy,” she said.

Society members sometimes travel north to the Whiteside Conservation Area near Troy or south of Sullivan, Missouri for a clearer view. Whiteside is a favorite.

“It’s nice because there are rangers who are very congenial to guys hanging out there all night long,” White said. “They know they are not making trouble – they are not getting drunk or being stupid. Most of them don’t smoke because you don’t want to get smoke on their optics so they are not going to set the place on fire.”

Friday night viewing is available during clear winter nights; and viewing can be good because the St. Louis area’s infamous humidity that can offer another viewing obstacle is lower. Mosquitoes are gone. “But it can be cold and windy,” White said.

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