Dark Vermilion Skies' May Star Party to feature youthful expert

Dark Vermilion Skies' May Star Party to feature youthful expert

DANVILLE — If you haven't heard of Aidan Pettice, one of the featured speakers at Friday's Dark Vermilion Skies' May Star Party, perhaps it's because he's only 10.

The Rev. Timothy Sauppe, founder of the local Dark Skies chapter and co-organizer of the star party, said he met the Alvin fourth-grader at a star party two years ago.

"He just blew us away with his knowledge of the stars and the planets," Sauppe said with a laugh. "So we invited him back to transport us to Jupiter and the Galilean moons, which brought about a revolution in how we think about our place in the cosmos."

The event will begin at 8:30 p.m. at the Environmental Educational Center at Kennekuk County Park, northwest of Danville. Attendance is free and open to the public.

It will also include a presentation on the moon by Carl Wenning, a retired assistant professor of physics at Illinois State University, former director of the university's planetarium and a member of the Twin City Amateur Astronomers.

Attendees are invited to bring their telescopes and binoculars for some star gazing later Friday night.

"It will be great family fun," Sauppe said. "The moon will be out. It will be waxing, which means between half and three-quarters" will be illuminated.

Sauppe is the priest at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Westville. In 2015, he organized Dark Vermilion Skies, which he's trying to get recognized as an official chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association, an anti-light-pollution advocacy group.

"The Vatican has a telescope in Arizona, and in January 2015, they put on workshops for priests, deacons and Catholic educators that was all about astronomy," Sauppe said. "They brought in speakers, including the International Dark-Sky Association, which talked about the effects of light pollution on humans, plants and animals.

"They challenged us to take something from the workshop and implement it locally," said the priest, who joined forces with the Vermilion County Conservation District to host the star parties twice a year to give people a chance to observe the sky and all of its wonders — and educate them about how artificial light pollution restricts that and has other harmful effects.

"This is waking people up to another form of pollution we don't think about ... because everyone goes to sleep at night," Sauppe said, pointing out that it can disrupt ecosystems and have adverse health effects. "They're doing simple things in Arizona like ... billboards have to shine their lights from the top down. All the billboards around here shine from the bottom up. ... At St. Mary's, we put our lights on timers or motion detectors.

"Children of the future will not see any stars unless we stop or mitigate light pollution," he continued. "You ask kids now what the Milky Way is, and they have no idea."

Aidan is clearly not one of those kids. He attended Rossville-Alvin schools until this past year, when his mom, Janet Pettice, began home-schooling him. He hopes to work at NASA someday.

Pettice said her son became interested in astronomy about three years ago. That's when he started watching TV programs such as "How the Universe Works," "Space's Deepest Secrets" and later "The Planets," hosted by astronaut Mike Massimino.

"I thought it would be neat to watch some of the shows with him. I got tired of them, but he kept on watching," she said with a laugh.

"He would memorize the shows," Pettice continued. "When we would go someplace to visit family, he would start spouting off all of those facts. ... One day, he was talking about 'spaghettification.' I told him, 'Aidan, I don't think that's a real thing.' He went back to a show in the DVR — he knew exactly which one to go to — and played it for me. I thought, 'Oh, my. It is a real thing.'"

"If you came in contact with a black hole, the gravitational field would stretch you out like a spaghetti noodle, and you could get pulled in," Aiden explained, adding thtat he hopes that never happens to him.

Aidan now has the "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" DVD collection, featuring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, thanks to his grandma, and a telescope to make his own observations in his backyard, a gift from mom and dad, Brian.

While he enjoys talking about Galilean moons, black holes and the possibility of a ninth planet outside of the Kuiper belt, he realizes the same can't be said for everyone.

"My friends at baseball don't really care. ... When I first started talking about neutron stars, they were pretty much paralyzed," said Aidan, who takes that in stride.

He's glad there are others, such as Sauppe, who share his enthusiasm, and he's looking forward to sharing his knowledge with the priest and others at the star party.

"This could be a big opportunity ... for people to learn about something they don't know about," he said.