Astronomy group brings the outer reaches of space to Lawrence

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Although the group of people gathered on top of the Vermont Street parking garage Monday night had a great view of the sunset, they were all waiting for one thing: nightfall. 

Every month, Astronomy Associates of Lawrence (AAL) hosts myriad educational events “to provide some insight into what is visible at night.” These activities, which take place throughout the entirety of the school year, are all open to the public. 

“We want to share the night sky with anyone who is interested in it,” said Rick Heschmeyer, president of AAL. “And that’s what we do.” 

Monday night’s Planetpalooza event, hosted in partnership with the Lawrence Public Library, gave attendees a chance to get a closer look at the moon, Venus, Mars and more. The International Space Station also came into view.

AAL is a club made up primarily of community members interested in astronomy and science with a few KU students and professors sprinkled in. It’s affiliated with NASA’s Night Sky Network and the Kansas City-based Astronomical League, two national organizations dedicated to encouraging and uniting both amateur and professional astronomers. 

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Astronomy enthusiasts of all ages and backgrounds gather on the top floor of the Vermont street parking garage for the Astronomy Associates of Lawrence’s Planetpalooza event April 3, 2023.

According to Heschmeyer, KU created AAL in the early 1970s as a student-only organization to attract more people to the Department of Physics & Astronomy. KU only had two astronomy professors at the time, and there were few students in the field. 

“It was 100% a student organization back then, but there just weren’t that many astronomy majors at KU,” Heschmeyer said. “They started letting non-university affiliated people in a long time ago, and now it’s mostly non-university affiliated people.”

By opening the club up to everyone, science enthusiasts from Lawrence and beyond are given a place to marvel about the wonders of the universe without having to spend a dime. Preschoolers, retirees and everyone in between walked away happy. 

Hunter Otterson, 24, said that although he doesn’t have a background in astronomy, the AAL offers events that both he and his daughter Lily, 4, appreciate. 

“We’re really just out here for fun,” Otterson said. “We thought she’d enjoy it, and we knew we’d enjoy being out here too.” 

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Hunter Otterson helps Lydia Otterson down from the telescope’s step stool after Lydia spots Betelgeuse, a red supergiant projected to supernova in the relatively near future.

Although anyone can attend AAL events for free, Heschmeyer encourages anyone interested in astronomy to become a member. Memberships — which cost $6 per year for students and $12 per year for non-students — come with perks. 

Joining the club means access to telescopes, subscriptions to the Astronomy Associates of Lawrence newsletter and the Astronomical League’s quarterly magazine, automatic membership in national astronomical organizations and invitations to all AAL events. 

Anyone who missed out on Planetpalooza will have another opportunity to stargaze in just a few days: Telescope Night is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, April 6 in front of Malott Hall, 1251 Wescoe Drive.

For more upcoming events, visit the AAL’s Facebook page and their KU webpage. Anyone interested in learning more about the AAL or becoming a member may do so at this link.

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Rick Heschmeyer packs up the telescopes he brought – a mere fraction of the number he owns – at the end of the evening. Although the 66-year-old works as a marketing director for a liquor company by day, the night sky is clearly his passion. He owns 20 telescopes and 225 meteorites.
Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Brian Heschmeyer, middle, and Michael Heschmeyer, right, help Rick put the telescopes away. Both sons share their father’s love for astronomy, which Rick said began in the late 1980s when KU held a viewing of Halley’s Comet. He bought his first telescope shortly after, and “just never looked back from there.”
Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Rick Heschmeyer, left, and son Michael Heschmeyer look up just before the sun sets.
Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Mike Quillin raises a hand to block the parking garage’s light for a better view of the ISS.
Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Everyone gazes upward as the International Space Station streaks across the sky.
Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Aspiring photographer Brian Heschmeyer points his camera at the moon.
Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Bill Hochstetler, a retired real estate broker from Pleasant Ridge, Michigan, cups his hands around his face to block out extra light as he tracks the ISS.
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Chloe Anderson (she/her) contributed to The Lawrence Times from August 2022 through May 2023. She is also published in Climbing magazine, Kansas Reflector and Sharp End Publishing. As a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, Chloe plans to continue her career in photography, rock climbing and writing somewhere out West.

You can view her portfolio, articles and commissioned work here. Check out more of her work for the Times here.

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