Planetariums, universities, state parks, and even a space center
From the early days of civilization, humanity has had a close relationship with the nighttime skies. The constellations helped explain the unexplainable. The stars helped us navigate oceans. And, exactly 50 years ago — in the midst of one of the most tumultuous years in American history — we sent a man (two of them, in fact) to the surface of the Moon.
So — if you’re anything like me — during this historic year, you feel a familiar pull to look up at the sky. Maybe this amazing (I really can’t stress how extraordinary it is) podcast series from the BBC about the Apollo 11 mission has me in the mood. Or maybe stargazing is just an unavoidable part of human nature.
So how do I quench that desire? Can I see the Milky Way in New Orleans?
In a city of nearly 400,000 people? No way, Jose. There’s way too much light pollution.
But I know I can see two or three constellations on a clear night down in the Bywater, and there are even darker skies in Audubon Park, Couturie Forest in City Park, and along the Pontchartrain lakefront. And all it takes are a pair of binoculars to see our moon’s craters. So, yeah, it’s possible to admire the heavens without going too far.
View this post on Instagram
10th stop on my #birthdayjourney: Gretna Observatory! I'd never been before, and I'd been dying to go. It was cool because I got to look through the giant and awesome telescope. I saw Saturn and the Orion Nebula! I love #space so much, so that was SUPER EXCITING! #GretnaObservatory #observatory #Saturn #nebula #OrionNebula #telescope #goldenbirthday #ElianaGoldenBday #birthday #15thbirthday
But there are 100 – 400 billion stars in our galaxy (10,000 stars for every grain of sand on Earth, holy moly!) and sometimes I want to see a few more than you can in even the darkest New Orleans sky.
Maybe you’re like me. Which leaves the question, Where should we go? So I scoured the internet, talked to the experts, and even visited a few spots.
And here’s what I came up with!
Where to View the Stars
Every clear-skied Monday and Wednesday night, the largest observatory in the Greater New Orleans area — as well as one of the biggest in all of Louisiana — is open to the public. Hours are from 8:30 until 11 p.m. during the summer, and 7 until 10 p.m. in the winter. (The hours switch at the start and end of daylight savings time.)
Using a variety of equipment in a 16-foot rotating dome, lucky Gretna Observatory guests — depending on the time of year — might catch a glimpse of gaseous and reflection nebulae, star clusters, planetary nebulae, double stars, galaxies, various stages of the Moon, as well as Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune!
For more information, or to schedule a group/school visit, call (504) 363-1597.
Highland Road Park Observatory
When you’re talking about the grand scale of the Universe, Baton Rouge really isn’t all that far. So stop your sighing and head out to the Highland Road Park Observatory for a calendar packed full of observations, lectures, meetings, and activities for both adults and children!
Check the busy calendar (link, above) to confirm, but Friday nights usually have a lecture preceding a shorter observation session; and Saturdays are more kid-friendly with a longer session for viewing.
Physics Professor Emeritus, Dr. Dan Purrington hosts the occasional observation session via a 16-inch reflecting telescope on the roof of Joseph Merrick Jones Hall. The best way to stay up to date with when those sessions are is via the Tulane University Observatory Facebook page.
Hit the Road!
And, outside of observatories, miles and miles of dark skies await you within an hour or two of New Orleans. The Feliciana Retreat Center in Norwood, Louisiana, for example, was rated one of the best places in all of North America to view the night skies by Astronomy Magazine in 1998! And that’s just a two-hour drive from NOLA.
Fontainebleau State Park and campgrounds in Abita Springs offer opportunities for less light pollution and more Milky Way than home, just on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain! The undisturbed swamplands around Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve and Salvador Wildlife Management Area are even closer.
With a whopping 604,000 acres sitting below the night sky, Kisatchie National Forest — the only national forest in Louisiana — beckons star lovers. Or head toward the end of Highway 39 where you’ll find a bayou near Pointe á la Hache surrounding the Woodland Plantation. Bogue Chitto State Park and Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge (just a mile from the Gulf and with mega-dark skies!) are also excellent star-gazing destinations.
Finally, give NASA’s Stennis Space Center a call at 228-688-2211 to see if the Buffer Zone is available for you to take advantage of their dark, clear skies. (Sometimes it’s closed for rocket propulsion testing, which makes sense since that’s what they do.)
Enjoy Stars Inside at these Planetariums
Just outside the city, this 50-foot domed screen shows astronomy and laser light show presentations in its 118-seat hall every Saturday from 10:45 a.m. until 3 p.m., as well as Tuesdays through Fridays by appointment.
The planetarium’s new Apollo 11-based show will debut Saturday, July 20, before becoming a staple of the Kenner Planetarium’s offerings.
View this post on Instagram
Planetarium at Audubon Louisiana Nature Center
Using real-life images from NASA and a state-of-the-art projection system, this New Orleans East planetarium has plenty of shows available to educate and entertain curious audiences. Their film series is just $7 for adults ($6 for kids) with a selection showing every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 2:30 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
Films at the popular theater range from a historical look at how our ancestors envisioned the universe through ancient structures, to a look at the amazing 400-year history of the telescope, to a peek into the ancient world of Mayan Archeoastronomy.
Make sure to go to their website and book tickets in advance!
The St. Charles Parish Library Planetarium
Back out in Luling, the St. Charles Parish Library Planetarium is one of the only planetariums in the United States associated with a public library. Enjoy and understand science via the planetarium’s 20-foot dome theater, 360-degree screen, and digital surround sound!
Public shows are available at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a show that immerses you in the story of the Apollo space program. A children’s matinee involving Elmo, Big Bird and the night sky takes place every Saturday at 10 a.m. And, later that day — at 2 p.m. — audiences can ride on nine different virtual attractions that traverse the solar system and beyond!
More Universe-related Fun!
INFINITY Science Center in NASA’s Stennis Space Center
NASA’s largest rocket engine test facility is about more than just business! (But, they do important work, so it’s also about business!) Whether you and/or the kids want to book a bus tour of the Stennis grounds, or explore the Apollo 4 capsule, a real-life astronaut’s spacesuit, a Deep Ocean explorer, and *drum roll, please* the mighty Saturn V first stage booster and its five giant F-1 engines that delivered Apollo astronauts where no man had ever gone before, there’s so much to see, do and learn at the INFINITY Science Center.
The exhibits are open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. every Monday through Saturday, but — for the rest of July — there’s also a special “Man on the Moon” Apollo 11 show for — INFINITY members, only — on Mondays (10 a.m. until noon) and Thursdays (1 until 3 p.m.). You can read more about the show and become a member here.
The Pontchartrain Astronomy Society
Want to enjoy the galaxy with other lovers (and emerging-lovers) of the nighttime skies? Then look into the Pontchartrain Astronomy Society! Click on the link to find interesting resources, and to learn about their monthly membership meetings and list of upcoming universe-related observation sessions.
Want to know where and when to catch the most exciting events in outer space? This welcoming group of more than 130 individuals and families will steer you in the right direction.
See! No matter how you’re looking to satisfy that desire to be a part of humanity’s long history with the heavens, there are plenty of options in and around New Orleans. And just in time because — between now and August 24 (with peak viewing on the night of August 12) — the prolific Perseids meteor shower will be visible in the sky (no special equipment necessary). So make a plan and happy exploring!