Amateur astronomers leave town to get in touch with their dark sides.

Black Hole Fun 

Amateur astronomers leave town to get in touch with their dark sides.

Kansas City is a filthy dump -- at least by stargazing standards. Beset by "light pollution," the electric-bulb-happy metro is enemy to all who wish to see more than the Big Dipper and buzzing streetlamps overhead.

This week is a great time to see waaay more. In the early spring, nights are long, and the earth is poised for viewing celestial goodies during a nearly new moon.

The ideal destination would be the Kansas Astronomy Village -- a "dark site" in Scopeville, Kansas. Situated on 20 acres of high, flat grassland about 75 miles southwest of Kansas City, the Kansas Astronomy Village is pitch black. The nearest community, a town of 4,000 people, is 20 miles away. Car headlights are forbidden at the village, and the only flashlights allowed are red-tinted ones. Although the village is usually reserved for members or private events, anyone can spend this weekend there as part of the Sierra Club's Starlight Campout.

For two nights, novices camp out among experienced observers willing to share their knowledge -- and their pricey equipment -- at this weekend's Messier Marathon. (Note: For the nonrugged camper, facilities include "black-hole toilets" and "meteor showers.") Armed with telescopes and planispheres, those nifty cardboard dials that show you the star layout for any date and time, amateur astronomers search for sky objects identified by eighteenth-century comet hunter Charles Messier.

Robert Nederman, a founding member of Astronomy Village, says Messier's list of 110 star clusters, nebulae and galaxies would have sucked if he'd done his star-logging atop Bartle Hall.

"In the city," Nederman explains, "you're lucky if you can see a couple hundred stars, as opposed to the couple hundred billion that are up there. First you have to find the sky -- by leaving town and looking up."

Event organizer Ellen Brenneman says Messier rookies should prepare for a challenge. "For a novice, just finding the things on the planisphere is enough to keep you busy."

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