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Stargazers Welcome

Season 5Episode 4Mar 14, 2023

The night sky isn’t just for experts, it belongs to all of us! And we here at NASA love to encourage people to go out and take a look. Amateur astronomer Kevin Hartnett, Hubble Social Media Lead Elizabeth Tammi, and the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt take us on a tour of the stars and share how you can join from your own backyard.

The cover art display for the NASA's Curious Universe podcast.

NASA's Curious Universe

Introducing NASA’s Curious Universe

Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. Join NASA astronauts, scientists, and engineers on a new adventure each episode — all you need is your curiosity. Explore the lifesaving systems of space suits, break through the sound barrier, and search for life among the stars. First-time space explorers welcome.

Episode Description:

The night sky isn’t just for experts, it belongs to all of us! And we here at NASA love to encourage people to go out and take a look. Amateur astronomer Kevin Hartnett, Hubble Social Media Lead Elizabeth Tammi, and the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt take us on a tour of the stars, and share how you can join from your own backyard.


[Song: Becoming Clear Instrumental by Saunderson]

[[Sound of car driving down a gravel road]]

HOST PADI BOYD: Down a windy gravel road, off the beaten path, less than 15 miles outside of Washington, DC and a stone’s throw from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, you might just find yourself in a field full of stars…

[[Sound of car stopping, car door opening, gravel crunching]]

HOST PADI BOYD: Nestled between softball fields and hiking trails, the city of Greenbelt, Maryland has built their very own observatory.

[[Onlooker: “It kind of looks like the inside of a spaceship…”]]

A few times a month, the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt hosts gatherings where attendees can learn about our universe.

[[Sounds of people gathered at the star party, chatting, gravel ground]]

HOST PADI BOYD: A couple of weeks ago, our producer Christina Dana attended one of these Star Parties.

HOST PADI BOYD: It was a cold and cloudy night, but still dozens of people turned out for the chance to see something amazing… a traveling comet, a beautiful constellation, or even a neighboring galaxy millions of light years away. As soon as the clouds began to clear, the onlookers, kids and adults alike, were given a tour of the night sky.

Conrad Terrill

So, we’re finally able to see some stars. There’s one there and there, those are probably Orion. That’s probably Rigel and Betelgeuse. I think that up there is Mars, the one straight up…

HOST PADI BOYD: The observatory itself is a domed structure about the size of a shed. Up a small flight of stairs to the viewing deck, you can watch the powerful telescope zero in on targets across the universe.

Kevin Wilson

If everyone could stay away from the dome for just a second…

[[Sound of observatory dome opening]]

[[Onlookers: “Woah…He’s moving the whole roof!”]]

Kevin Wilson

Here so we can see it. This is the telescope. And this takes the picture…

HOST PADI BOYD: Star parties aren’t unique to this area. There are events like this one organized by astronomy enthusiasts around the world. This is Astronomical Society of Greenbelt member Kevin Wilson.

Kevin Wilson

We can have anywhere, I mean, you can see we’re on a night where there’s clouds. And we’ve got, what, 20 people out there. We can have as many as 40 to 50. On a clear night, we’ll have people come and set up their telescopes also. And so people will be showing up there. I’ve got my binoculars in the car, so I could be showing people…

HOST PADI BOYD: I’m your host, Padi Boyd, and on this episode of Curious Universe, we want to take a trip to the stars… from your own backyard! And encourage you to look up at night, with your own tools, with a local astronomy association, or with pictures captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, to see everything the universe has to show us.

[Song: Night Sky Searching Instrumental by Ecoff]

Kevin Hartnett

So I’m Kevin Hartnett. I’m a retired emeritus from NASA. And I’m a very avid amateur astronomer, skywatcher.

HOST PADI BOYD: Kevin is one of NASA’s enthusiastic amateur astronomers, and worked on the Hubble mission, as well as others, before he retired from the agency. Not only is he an active stargazer, but also an accomplished astrophotographer, and part of an amateur organization contributing to the study of asteroids… all from his home astronomy set up!

HOST PADI BOYD: He may have more time for his hobby now that he’s retired, but Kevin’s interest in the stars has been with him for quite some time.

Kevin Hartnett

Well, I was always interested in science. So I had a rock collection and I would study the clouds.

Kevin Hartnett

In grade school, I had a buddy named Don. I found out he was grinding the mirror for a six inch reflecting telescope. And I thought that was way cool. And so I helped him with that. Ended up joining an astronomical society that had a junior division, kind of a teen division, and boy that really got me started.

Kevin Hartnett

The group would meet out in a field. We took our sleeping bags and we’d be out there all night, learning the constellation. Seeing things in our telescope, playing astronomy games with one another, who’s the first to find this or that.

[Song: Closing of the Hour Underscore by Ecoff]

Kevin Hartnett

My life was changed when I saw Saturn in a telescope, and that was probably at one of those star parties.

Kevin Hartnett

Of course, we’ve all seen pictures. But there’s something different about seeing it with your own eye. The reality of it. The connection you feel with outer space is a little hard to describe. The ring around a ball, why would that be particularly beautiful, but it is, it’s, it’s remarkably beautiful.

Kevin Hartnett

That really changed me. I wanted to get more and more into it. So I started to scrap around for any telescope I could find. And I had this little tabletop refractor, it was maybe a two and a quarter inch refractor, cheapo, like you’d find at a five and dime store. And the legs of it weren’t long enough to use it; I had to put it up on a picnic table.

Kevin Hartnett

I found the Andromeda galaxy in that thing one night. And I’ll never forget that because I looked and looked and looked, I was still learning the constellations. But I found it.

Kevin Hartnett

I have four sisters. They all had to come out and look, and I was doing this in January or something, it was probably 20 degrees or 30 degrees. Everybody had to get their coat on. Everybody came out. We all enjoyed the Andromeda galaxy together in this little refractor.

HOST PADI BOYD: When you imagine a nebula or galaxy, you’re probably thinking of a picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble has been our eyes to the skies for over 30 years now, orbiting Earth beyond our atmosphere to bring us a clear view of space. In fact, my own NASA journey began in the early days of the Hubble mission, when I came to work on a first generation instrument aboard this powerful space telescope. And the amazing Hubble telescope keeps calling me back: it has been my privilege to be part of the Project Science Team on and off over the decades.

[Song: Hilltop Tableau Underscore by Modi]

HOST PADI BOYD: Some of the clearest, most iconic images of space have come from this incredible machine. There’s a team at NASA dedicated to capturing those images and sharing them with the public, encouraging people to take a look for themselves!

Elizabeth Tammi

Hi, my name is Elizabeth Tammi and I’m the Social Media Lead for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope mission.

Elizabeth Tammi

I work on the Hubble team and basically my job is to share all the amazing images and discoveries about Hubble with the general public with the goal of getting them excited about the amazing work that Hubble does, come away with that feeling like they’ve learned something about our universe, and are excited to continue learning more about it.

Elizabeth Tammi

You know, as long as humanity has been around, we’ve always been looking to the stars and looking at the sky and making these observations. Then there were telescopes and binoculars and things like that that helped us learn more about our moon and the planets in our solar system, and even galaxies beyond our own.

Elizabeth Tammi

But it wasn’t really until we had Hubble’s clear view, located above Earth’s atmosphere, and the precision and power of the observatory that show just unprecedented clarity and detail about cosmic objects both near and far in our universe.

HOST PADI BOYD: One of the reasons Hubble makes for a great stargazing resource is that it captures images across many wavelengths of light, including the visible light spectrum.

Elizabeth Tammi

Hubble can see in optical light, which is what our human eyes are capable of detecting. That’s also exciting, especially when dealing with planets in our own solar system, for instance. I will sometimes see amateur astronomers compare images that they’ve taken versus images that Hubble has taken. They can get quite similar.

Elizabeth Tammi

In general, I think Hubble just has a way of inspiring people to make their own amateur astronomy observations or to just do their own research in astronomy. The more observations of a cosmic object there is, the more that we’re all going to understand it and get excited about learning more.

HOST PADI BOYD: Amateur astronomy is a great way to understand our place in the universe, but it can be a fickle hobby as well. It takes long hours, late into the night, and requires the cooperation of the world around you.

[Song: Someone Somewhere Instrumental by Dowd Riordan]

Kevin Hartnett

Every amateur astronomer is also an amateur meteorologist. We’re always wondering, is it going to be clear or not? Every clear night, I’m thinking about one or more of these different portions of the hobby that I’m into.

Kevin Hartnett

I’ll look at a clear night coming up and I’ll think about, is it a good night to show other people things? The planets aren’t always visible. Maybe there’ll be a nice passage of the space station that night. Something else special that comes along like a meteor shower or comet or something like that. Do I take pictures of it? Do I show it to others? What do I do?

HOST PADI BOYD: There is so much to see in the night sky, it might be intimidating to think about where to start! The stargazing community is full of maps and resources to help you begin your astronomy journey. Plus there are helpful guides, like astronomical catalogs, to point you in the direction of some beautiful things.

Kevin Hartnett

People have logged or cataloged things that they’ve seen in the sky since the ancient Greeks. When Galileo turned the telescope to the heavens in the early 1600s, people began to make notes of the things that they could see in the telescope, maybe they couldn’t see with our naked eye.

Kevin Hartnett

These early logs have been compiled together. And a couple of these catalogs have become very helpful for amateurs. One is called the Messier catalog…

[Song: Unanswered Questions Instrumental by Heywood]

HOST PADI BOYD: The Messier catalog is one of the premier tools for amateur astronomy, but it came about almost by accident! French astronomer Charles Messier was looking for comets, when he accidentally found a lot of other cosmic objects along the way. But one astronomer’s noise is another astronomer’s signal!

Kevin Hartnett

The Messier catalog was a catalog of nuisance objects that was kept by a Frenchman in the 1700s.

Kevin Hartnett

He was a comet hunter, and that was very, very important back in the 1700s. Because if you found a comet and you named it after your king, you got to be the head of the observatory.

Kevin Hartnett

There’s 110 entries now in this very famous catalog, the Messier catalog, that were discovered by him and some of his other colleagues. Bright objects that weren’t comets, that now we know are things like globular clusters or galaxies or planetary nebulae. M1, the first entry, is the Crab Nebula in Taurus.

Kevin Hartnett

There’s a group called the Astronomical League that you can sign up with and if you submit a log to them that shows you went out and found all 110 Messier objects, they will send you a Messier certificate and a pin. And I was very proud to get mine–2019!

HOST PADI BOYD: Right now, March, in the northern hemisphere, is the perfect time to start looking for Messier’s objects on your own in the night sky!

[Song: Driving Motion Instrumental by Dubois]

HOST PADI BOYD: Or if you’re really committed, the perfect time to find all of them.

Elizabeth Tammi

The Messier Marathon is a very popular event for amateur astronomers and astrophotographers. The Messier Marathon takes place in March because that’s an ideal time to locate all of the objects in the Messier catalog in a single night. It’s a very challenging task, but it provides a good reason to organize a star party or a stargazing event.

Elizabeth Tammi

Hubble has observed a lot of the objects in the Messier catalog and we have them all located on our website at If you see any images that are called “M” followed by a number, those are part of the Messier catalog.

HOST PADI BOYD: The Messier catalog isn’t the only resource for amateur astronomers. Messier worked in Paris, so his objects can be seen in the northern hemisphere. If you’re looking for something more worldwide, you can explore the Caldwell catalog or the Herschel 400.

HOST PADI BOYD: March is the right time for the Messier Marathon in our neck of the woods because the night sky is constantly changing. Over the course of a night, week, month, and year, Earth is on the move…

[Song: Sparkles Underscore by Fox Jones ]

HOST PADI BOYD:…shifting and turning so there’s always something new to see. This is particularly true over the course of all four seasons.

Kevin Hartnett

As the Earth moves around the Sun, it’s looking at different directions within our broader Milky Way galaxy.

Kevin Hartnett

In the summertime, when you look out from Earth, you’re looking back toward the center of the Milky Way galaxy. And so there are many star clusters. You see the big band of the Milky Way overhead. There’s just hundreds and hundreds of globular clusters and nebulae.

Kevin Hartnett

Three months earlier, in the spring, there’s very few stars. It’s as boring as can be, looking at the sky. Hard to find any constellations, except the Big Dipper. But if you have a telescope, you can see galaxies.

Kevin Hartnett:

In the spring and fall, you’re looking out the side of our galaxy. You’re not looking through all this dust and stuff. There’s like hundreds and hundreds of galaxies.

Kevin Hartnett

During the winter, you’re looking opposite the center so you’re looking out through a thing called the Orion arm of the Milky Way galaxy, which is filled with bright stars. So when you go out, just dazzling stars like diamonds, you know, on a setting of black out there. Looking at the Pleiades, beautiful cluster, and Orion and Taurus. So it’s glorious. There’s different things to look at in different seasons. And they’re all special and fun. And they’re fun to share, fun to catalog. Just fun to enjoy.

HOST PADI BOYD: It might be intimidating to get started stargazing, but a general consensus around stargazers seems to be that the best way to get started, is to find a friend to join in with you.

Kevin Hartnett

I think it’s really helpful to find a friend who shares that interest.

[Song: Seren Seasons Underscore by Elias Ramani]

Kevin Hartnett

Somebody that you can do it with together. That way you can share resources you find online, you can go out together with a star chart and figure out, “Wow, that’s Castor, that’s Pollux. That’s Gemini, I never saw it before. Now I see it.”

Kevin Hartnett

You and a friend can join an astronomy club. Get yourself a good pair of binoculars. You can see a lot of the Messier objects and the Caldwell objects with binoculars. That’s really the best advice I can give you: do it with somebody else.

HOST PADI BOYD: The Greenbelt star party showed that even on a cloudy night, stargazing is a group activity. And there are tons of local resources available to get you started.

[Song: Happy Humans Underscore by Anderson Moenks]

HOST PADI BOYD: Here’s Astronomical Society of Greenbelt member Conrad Terrill.

[[Sound of people at the star party]]

Conrad Terrill

I joined the astronomy club in 2013. My wife wanted to get the grandkids interested in scientific things. So she joined us as a family. They were looking for people to help out in running the observatory. So I volunteered.

Conrad Terrill

You can put a lot of money into a telescope and then find out that you don’t actually like astronomy. [Laughs] You can also borrow telescopes from some clubs. And you can try it out. That’s what I did, in fact, and found out that this was kind of fun.

HOST PADI BOYD: Joining a stargazing group can be a great excuse to get out in nature, meet your neighbors, and ignite your sense of curiosity. But it can also give you a sense of perspective.

[Song: Time for Reflection Instrumental by D Oliveira]

HOST PADI BOYD: We are tiny dots in a virtually infinite universe. And depending on where you’re standing, that can be really amazing.

Elizabeth Tammi

Before working with Hubble, I kind of understood how massive the universe was and found that to be staggeringly huge, and it was kind of overwhelming. Now that I’ve been a part of the Hubble team, I think that same understanding of the incomprehensible size of the universe is almost a comfort.

Elizabeth Tammi

We’ve learned a lot, but there’s still so much to learn. And it’s so cool to get to be a part of this in any small way. It’s an absolute honor and privilege to get to be part of a mission that has taught us so much about our place in the universe.

[Song: Curiosity Outro by SYSTEM Sounds]

HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. This episode was written and produced by Christina Dana. Our executive producer is Katie Konans. The Curious Universe team includes Maddie Arnold and Micheala Sosby, with support from Christian Elliott.

HOST PADI BOYD: Our theme song was composed by Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of SYSTEM Sounds.

HOST PADI BOYD: Special thanks to Jim Jeletic, the Hubble Space Telescope Team, and the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt.

HOST PADI BOYD: If you want to learn more about the Hubble Space Telescope and its spectacular views of the universe, visit or follow along on social media @NASAHubble on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

HOST PADI BOYD: What do you think, Christina? Would you recommend attending a star party?

Producer Christina Dana

I absolutely would. And I really cannot thank the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt, Conrad Terrill, and Kevin Wilson enough for letting me come out and bring my recorder. It was such a cool evening.

HOST PADI BOYD: I’ll see you at the next one!