From bar to the stars: Sidewalk astronomy brings the heavens to the street
MOORHEAD – A late night in a bar can lead to some revelers seeing stars the next morning. But step outside Moorhead's Junkyard Brewing Co. on a clear Friday or Saturday night this summer after the sun sets, and you'll get a sobering view of some celestial scenery.
On those nights, hobby astronomer Jay Bjerke sets up one of his two telescopes and trains them at some heavenly bodies.
"It is just so much fun because so many people have never looked through a quality instrument, or ever looked through a telescope before," Bjerke says.
He is following the lead of the late amateur astronomer John Dobson who promoted "sidewalk astronomy" as a way to bring astronomy to the people.
But are beer drinkers really the most focused audience?
"They're very curious," Bjerke says.
As opposed to more basic 3-inch telescopes available in big-box retail stores, Bjerke brings out either his 11-inch or 16-inch telescopes, the latter weighing 300 pounds.
"The more light you can gather, the more magnification you can use and still get a good image," he explains. "This allows much brighter views and better resolution.
"What a lot of backyard astronomers are frustrated with is keeping something in the field of view. Since the Earth is rotating rather rapidly, you get the moon in there and by the time you get your family over to take a look, it's gone. Same for the planets. We rotate out of the field very quickly."
His telescopes track the subjects electronically, he says.
He kicked off his program last year not on the sidewalk but the rooftop of the Hotel Donaldson, but found the space was a little too cramped for his telescope. He started bringing it over to Junkyard in September and has been returning periodically ever since.
"It's something to talk about," Bjerke says. "Nobody is spending an hour by my 'scope. They come out for five or 10 minutes and take a look and have another drink. It's just a conversation piece. Something to break up the monotony of the evening."
"I think the craft beer crowd tends to be more interested in an event like this, learning and discovering something," says Aaron Juhnke, co-owner of Junkyard. "It brings out a different crowd. We see more people bringing their kids to check it out. It's more of a family event. The kids are even more amazed than adults."
Juhnke says children are allowed in the brewery so parents can have a beer or take part in space trivia, which Bjerke hosts while it's still light out. The telescope is set up on the patio so adults can have a sip while staring at the stars.
"Every time I do this, four or five families come, and that's really what it's all about for me, is getting kids interested in science of any kind. Just the wonder of discovery and the wonder of nature," Bjerke says.
He earned his master's degree in entomology and only started taking an interest in astronomy 10 years ago.
"I've been a nerd all my life. If someone paid me to do it, I'd look through a microscope or telescope all day long," he says.
Because the sky above Junkyard's location in the city suffers from light pollution, viewing is limited to "the really bright options." Through the summer, he can focus in on Saturn and Jupiter.
"It's really fun. You can see the rings around Saturn very well. You can see four or five moons going around Jupiter."
"People are just amazed by the amount of details you can see on the moon. The craters and mountains. It's just tremendous."
The problem for some is that it doesn't get dark until late, so the planets and moon aren't sharp until late at night.
"We're so far north that when the weather is nice, it doesn't get dark until 10 p.m.," Bjerke says. "So you've got to find places where people are at 10, 11 or midnight. Bars are basically the only place you see folks at 10, 11 or midnight."
While the times may not be ideal for everyone, the project has raised interest in astronomy, Bjerke says.
"It's amazing how many people I talk to have a telescope in their closet at home. Haven't had it out for years. A lot of people say, 'I'm going to get that out again,' or, 'I'm going to come to your next club meeting,' " he says, adding that FM Astronomers has seen a few new members in the past few months.
"I think it's really cool," Juhnke says. "Like a lot of people, I don't have a gigantic telescope to look at the stars, so I think it's cool to borrow his telescope for the night and look at stars and planets and all kinds of stuff."