Every year in September Davis Farm in Sterling, MA creates a new “mega maze”. This human-sized cornfield maze takes anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours to complete. In2009 I noticed they had advertised a “moonlit maze” and “starlit maze” on their website. As an amateur astronomer, naturally I was intrigued. So I inquired about the event and asked if I could bring some telescopes and observing equipment, which they readily welcomed. This maze draws people from all over the region and I saw it as a great opportunity to celebrate IYA2009 by providing an eyepiece to the heavens for the hundreds of men, women, and children who would pass through the maze. The first night was a moonless night and Jupiter was the crown jewel from sunset until about 10:30pm when we packed up. I had a small netbook running Stellarium as a simulation of what to expect for people to look at while waiting. Most people had never seen Jupiter before and didn’t realize that the bright yellow "star" up there in the sky was actually the largest of our planetary brethren. Even more exciting was the fact that there are moons orbiting Jupiter and they could actually see them! I knew it was a success when we had a line 20 people deep! After viewing, I began taking some questions about Jupiter, the Galilean moons, the solar system, and astronomy in general. Many people asked about purchasing their own equipment and what it would take to be able to do this from their backyard. When I mentioned that even "cheap" binoculars would show the four moons, some groups vowed to try it that night when they got home.
Two weeks later was the “moonlit” maze at Davis Farm and I once again returned, this time with two scopes – one for Jupiter and one for the waxing, just past first quarter gibbous. The night was a great success and a few people had arrived anticipating the darkness and inquired “how long until the scopes are ready?” I trained my 6" Mak-Cass on the Jovian system and a 5" Newtonian on the moon. As astronomers we sometimes forget just how majestic our nearest celestial neighbor can be, but not this night. The moon was a major hit. Many folks simply have never looked at it for more than a second or two let alone studied it at 72x. The detail that is visible at the terminator is a literal eye-opener, especially for the kids who stopped by as they tried to balance on a small step stool to peer through the eyepiece. Many questions and many more "oohs and aahs" were the result. As a bonus, we even caught an ISS flyover around 9pm!
I returned to the maze again in 2010 and plan to do so at least twice in fall of this year. Isn’t it great how we can share something we love to do with others and provide an experience which is bound to spark a curiosity and may even lead to a new hobbyist in the community or perhaps even a professional! If you live in the Central Massachusetts area, be sure to stop by the maze this fall. Happy viewing and clear skies!