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Family vacationing with the stars

Adrienne Gauthier

Star-gazers are geeking out about this weekend’s solar eclipse (which will be visible in many western states on Sunday, May 20; for more, click here). Perhaps nobody is as excited as Adrienne Gauthier. The down-to-earth amateur astronomer works as an instructional technologist at the University of Arizona by day, and moonlights as the astronomy concierge (yes, that’s her formal title) at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, in Tucson, Ariz. In anticipation of the upcoming celestial event, I sat down with Gauthier and asked her about her job, and about how families can build vacations around stargazing.

Q. First, explain what you do as astronomy concierge.
A. We have really dark skies out here, so on clear nights you can see tons of stars. Well six years ago, the resort started a free, interpretive star-gazing program and they were looking for professionals to run it. I’ve been the concierge ever since. We have 8-inch Celestron telescope that we use to look at anywhere from eight to 10 different objects. We break it out on Wednesday and Saturday nights. During that time, guests can come by and see for themselves, or just ask me questions; I’m there to teach them about astronomy and a little about the universe. Most of them call me the ‘telescope lady.’

Q. How do kids usually respond to what they see?
A. It depends. The telescope is a ‘pop-up’ science experience, and people aren’t really expecting that at a resort. But if you start kids with something really cool—like, say, Saturn, or the moon—they’re more receptive and it sits with them a little longer. For younger kids, sometimes there is difficulty with them understanding how to look through the tube of the eyepiece.

Q. To what extent can a family build a vacation around stargazing?
A. So long as you know what you’re looking at, it’s possible anywhere. When I see kids are really interested, there’s a website I refer a lot of parents to go to. The site, Skymaps.com, is a great resource and you can print PDFs off it. Of course Stardate is good, too. There also are iPad apps that come in handy: Star Walk is a great one (try this one for iPhones).

Q. Any pointers for viewing the upcoming eclipse?
A. When we astro-educators talk about solar events, we always remind people never to look at the sun with their eyes, through a telescope, through binoculars, or through a camera unless they have the proper specialized solar filters. Sunglasses—even polarized ones—are not enough protection. Otherwise just be sure to research when and where will be the best watch; you can’t see it from everywhere.

Q. Around which other upcoming celestial happenings might parents plan a vacation?
A. The transit of Venus is coming up on Tuesday, June 5; that’s when Venus crosses in front of the sun. Here at the hotel, where we’ll be able to see it between 3 and about 5:30 p.m., we’ll break out the solar telescope and we’ll have a couple of events for families and kids. Through one of the programs, kids can decorate a cookie like the sun. Kids also can learn about the prominences—those are the arches that you see when you look at the sun. It’s all fun stuff. Family vacations are always best when the kids learn something new.

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