Smile Politely

Prairie Skies at night

I went to Staerkel Planetarium three weekends in a row, and I learned a ton of cool stuff. I still haven’t seen everything they have to offer, but I intend to try. The shows are cheap and educational, and they start early enough that I can get my tired ass in bed before 10 o’clock.

This visit, I attended Prairie Skies, a tour through the local nighttime heavens. Unlike the other two presentations I saw recently, Prairie Skies is narrated live. The planetarium’s director, Dave Leake, is well versed in astronomy and has a good sense of humor. He cares about the subject matter and knows the audience will too, once he’s done with them. There were a ton of kids there that night. They, along with their parents, lent a sense of enthusiasm to the night that was contagious.

I learned what constellations and planets to look for, and how and when to find them. Depending on the part of the world, time of year, and time of night, it can be difficult or impossible to see certain celestial orbs. I am happy to report the appearance of Leo means that spring is finally coming. It’s a much more reliable barometer than the groundhog, and the lion sticks around for more than a few minutes.

There is only one prerecorded portion of the show. The woman narrating the legend of Orion has a pleasant voice, and the information is presented with visual cues. As she describes Sirius, Orion’s hunting dog, the stars that make him up are highlighted, creating the full image of Canis Major. It’s all very interesting and informative. The best part (and by best, I mean funniest) is the story of Orion’s run-in with The Seven Sisters.

Orion is hunting with his dogs in the woods, and he happens upon a group of lovely maidens. They are laughing gaily, singing, and tossing a ball to one another (because that’s what hoards of ladies do in their free time). One of them isn’t much of an athlete and she loses the ball, which rolls toward Orion and his helpful hunting mates. The delicate girls see the gigantic man and his vicious dogs and they flee, screaming. Orion doesn’t want the women to think he means them any harm, so he decides the best thing to do is to chase after them.

I imagine a loud, deep, “Wait! I can explain!” followed by a lot of high-pitched screeching. This goes on for some time. The Seven Sisters have a father who is protective and, surely, tired of this scene. He sends Taurus to guard his lovely, ball-playing daughters from Orion and his beasts. Sure enough, the bull is lit up, and I see him placed between the star cluster and the constellation in question.

I don’t want to tell all of the secrets that Prairie Skies reveals. A big part of the fun of Staerkel’s presentations is learning something new. The audience takes away piles of information about something common and often overlooked. The everyday turned special is magic, and I would hate to take away from that experience.

The sky is full of stories. There are thousands to be told, and the folks at Staerkel know how to tell them. The world beyond ours is an exciting place, filled with legends and useful information. I am always glad to visit the planetarium. When the show is over, I walk out into the night, well informed and full of wonder, time after time.

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