Exploring Tahoe’s night sky

Courtesy Tahoe Star Tours OR Ryan Berendsen

While Tahoe’s blue skies are enchanting during the day, once night falls, the scattered light of stars and planets against the black sky can be equally amazing. I recently found a new appreciation for the Tahoe night by attending a Tahoe Star Tours, presented by Tony Berendsen. The tours are offered every Thursday through Saturday evening through Sept. 1 at Northstar California’s Dark Skies Cosmoarium.

BUCKET LIST #12

Over the past 17 years, Berendsen, past president of the Astronomical Society of Nevada, has been telling the tale of the great sky to more than 22,000 folks in Northern Nevada and California. He also writes a bimonthly, “Star Guide” column for the Reno Gazette Journal. In addition to being an astronomer, Berendsen is a poet, incorporating some of his prose into his presentations.

Dark Skies Cosmoarium (a word invented by Berendsen) has been at Northstar for five years. It sits in a level area away from the lights of Northstar and Truckee just below the Castle Peak parking lot near the entrance to the resort. There is a wide, unobstructed view of the sky, small building and a large patio area with fire pits and chairs.

On the night I attended a tour, Berendsen began the evening with a quick orientation and cosmic poem in the parking lot, then while catching the last rays of the sunset, we strolled over to the Cosmoarium, 100 yards away via a paved path. As the sky slowly darkened, our group of 20 lined up for hot chocolate and the makings for smores, including perhaps the best wood sticks I’d ever seen for roasting marshmallows. Once we were sated with chocolate, Berendsen began his presentation that combined entertaining film, slides and compelling dialogue.

The amazing scale of the universe can be hard to wrap your mind around, but Berendsen did a great job of capturing not only how awe-inspiring space is, but understandable for the non-astronomer.

“Use your imagination; it can heighten your experience of looking at the stars,” he said.

Berendsen talked about how the concept of infinity can not only be applied to deep space where objects are billions of light years away, but to our own bodies, where there is an infinity of smallness down to the nanometer and beyond.

“We are actually living in the middle of infinity,” he said.

Berendsen obviously loves getting people interested in the universe: “We hope they will go away with a little more understanding of what they are actually seeing in the sky. To our naked eyes the sky is two-dimensional, but if you add, knowledge and imagination you can make it three-dimensional.”

After his presentation, the sky was now dark enough for us to take advantage of the next phase of the evening, pondering the universe through three state-of-the-art, 11-inch Celestron telescopes. Tony’s son Ryan and several students from University of Nevada, Reno with a keen interest in astronomy, had set up the scopes to look at Jupiter and four of its moons, the earth’s moon and several distant nebulas and galaxies. They also answered any astronomy questions we could come up with and with a laser pointer gave a quick tour of the constellations that can be seen throughout the sky.

Tahoe Star Tours
Thursday-Saturday | Until Sept. 1

Perseid Meteor Shower
Aug. 12 | Cosmic Concert and/or Meteor Watching

The next time I find myself on a backpack trip on a remote part of the Tahoe Rim Trail or sitting on the beach on a dark night, my enhanced understanding of the universe will make the experience of lying back and gazing up at the stars much more fulfilling. Berendsen’s hope is that “one day everyone will walk out under a starry sky they understand.” | tahoestartours.com