I love an old-fashioned sky show

A guided sky tour at New York City's Hayden Planetarium.
A guided sky tour at New York's Hayden Planetarium.

While in New York last week, I dropped in at the Hayden Planetarium for a real treat: an old-fashioned sky show.

This was not your typical overwrought, highly digitized, celebrity narrated, long-on-glitz and short-on-insights production number that planetariums feel they have to create these days in order to get the public’s attention. This was a guided ramble through the night sky, delivered live and ad lib by an avuncular astronomical expert named Steve Beyer.

As the planetarium’s Zeiss Mark IX Star Projector dotted the dome above us with an exact replica of the stars as seen from Manhattan, Beyer strolled around in the dark focusing our attention with his laser pointer much as a small-town cop might show a visitor the highlights of his community on a night-time flashlight tour.

Just after sunset, he began, waving his laser low in the West, you can see Venus here, and then Mars and Saturn not far behind, here and here. Up above—right there—is the Big Dipper, which helps you find the North Star over here. He pointed out Vega, Deneb, and Altair, among the brightest stars in the sky, members of their own constellations (Lyra, the harp; Cygnus, the swan; and Aquila, the eagle), and markers of the very conspicuous stellar grouping known as the Summer Triangle.

Like any tour guide who really knows his subject, Beyer sprinkled in impressive nuggets of information as he went. One of my favorites: Arcturus, the brilliant orange star in the constellation Bootes, the herdsman, is actually an interloper. A refugee from another galaxy that collided with ours, Arcturus races through our celestial neighborhood powered by the original momentum of its long-gone parent.

Beyer also knew how to bring the stars down to earth. Throughout his life, he said, he has marked personal milestones and historical events by noting which constellation Jupiter is aligned with at the time; the planet moves into a new Zodiac “sign” every year, completing a full loop in 12.

The amazing thing? This old-fashioned sky show—free of computer-generated wormholes and Star Wars-inspired anthems and taking place on a Tuesday night at 6:30—nearly packed the planetarium. Must have been at least a couple hundred people there. Young couples, parents with their kids, business-type folks, “life-long learners,” retirees, and the obvious science enthusiasts (they did very well on the video quiz out in the waiting room before the show).

In its wisdom, the Hayden Planetarium offers this sort of straight-ahead guide to the constantly changing night sky on the last Tuesday of every month. On July 27, Joe Rao will present a program that includes a preview of the Perseids meteor shower, which takes place in August. On August 31, Ted Williams will help viewers visualize the galactic, ecliptic, and equatorial planes in the night sky.

Not exactly flashy stuff. But the thing about the night sky—the thing that these presenters and the planetarium management know—is that the night sky doesn’t need any hype. It’s incredible all on its own. As long as you know what to look for, and where to look for it.

And for that, all you need is a good old-fashioned sky show.

Categories: Astronomy & Space