Some units of the National Park System offer premier sites for enjoying the night sky, due to their location far from cities and the accompanying light pollution. One park which doesn't have the advantage of dark skies has something else—the only planetarium in the National Park System.
Rock Creek Park is just a few miles north of the White House, and the Washington, D.C. metro area is certainly not known for its pristine night sky. That hasn't prevented rangers at Rock Creek from capitalizing on the interest of children and their parents in the stars and planets.
Located within the Rock Creek Nature Center, the small planetarium serves as an astronomy laboratory, allowing visitors to study the sky under ideal conditions. The only planetarium in the national park system, it is meant to stimulate and foster an interest in the sky and stars. Although it is not the purpose of the planetarium's programs to present a great wealth of astronomical information, certain fundamental concepts are woven into the fabric of each program, concepts which are basic to a proper understanding of the sky.
The majority of Rock Creek's planetarium programs show the night sky as it appears in the Washington, D.C. area for the specific date and time of the program. The projector can also be accelerated to allow visitors to witness phenomena which take months, years, or even centuries to occur.
According to a recent story in the Washington Post, the programs receive high marks from the audience.
"I liked seeing the Milky Way and the stories about the constellations and when the stars came out on the screen. It was neat," said star enthusiast Sophia Kotschouby, 6, of Silver Spring. "When we lived in New Jersey I could see maybe four stars at night, and here I can see only one or two."
Rangers hope the programs will develop an interest not only in stargazing, but will provide a unique way to capture their interest in wider subjects, such as protecting natural resources and reducing light pollution.
The free programs are held several times each week and are geared for children. The park also offers curriculum materials for teachers to use before and after a visit to the park's planetarium, or for independent classroom lessons.
I'll admit to being surprised when I first learned about these programs, but agree that preserving those pristine dark skies in remote parts of the country depends in large degree on the interest and support of people who live in urban areas. Perhaps programs such as these at Rock Creek Park will help make a difference.
Seating is limited for the programs each week, and free tickets are available 30 minutes before each program, which are usually held twice on Saturdays and Sundays and once during the week. The park website includes a schedule of programs and directions to the park.