Astronomical fun: Kids and adults participate in a space-oriented activity during June’s Star Party at Shades State Park in northeastern Parke County. The park’s second annual Star Party, timed with the Perseid meteor shower, is scheduled for 10 p.m. to midnight Saturday. Submitted photo
Astronomical fun: Kids and adults participate in a space-oriented activity during June’s Star Party at Shades State Park in northeastern Parke County. The park’s second annual Star Party, timed with the Perseid meteor shower, is scheduled for 10 p.m. to midnight Saturday. Submitted photo
A dark sky full of starlight — untainted by the artificially illuminated parking lots, shopping centers, streets and highways — is hard to find.

Once found, though, it’s worth the trip.

Stars, constellations and planets seem to multiply and sparkle brighter in night skies free from light pollution. Add an astronomical wonder like this week’s annual Perseid meteor shower, and the sight transforms from beautiful to spectacular.

Maybe that’s the vision 19th-century Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh experienced when he wrote, “For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”

Perhaps such a sight goes beyond prettiness or inspiration. It could be that in tumultuous times like this — when a pandemic and political ideologies tear apart friends, families and communities — an hour or two spent laying flat, staring upward into the night, can offer a glimpse into the universe’s virtues. “Only in the darkness can you see the stars,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said.

That opportunity awaits at Shades State Park, which quietly fills the remoteness of Parke County’s northeast corner and overlaps into Fountain and Montgomery counties. Hikers and campers adore Shades for its primitive camping, adventurous trails, and eye-catching cliffs and ravines. Astronomy buffs also like the blackness of its night skies. Its the sister park of Turkey Run State, the more heavily visited Parke County facility 13 miles away.

Thus, Shades is perfectly equipped for its twice-a-summer Star Party, a stargazing event “at the darkest public night sky in Indiana.” The second Star Party of 2021 happens Saturday night from 10 o’clock to midnight. It’s free and an ideal chance for kids and parents to take one last summer-vacation, fresh-air weekend outing as schools start this month.

Plus, any adult, needing something heavenly to focus on rather than frustrations and worries down here on Earth, should find some relief there.

The Perseid meteor shower should still be active. The moon will be just a crescent, so its light won’t overwhelm the “shooting stars.” The weather forecast predicts few clouds and temperatures in the 60s. And most manmade lighting will be miles away.

“The timing for it is really quite exciting,” said Aaron Douglass, Shades’ interpretive naturalist.

It also shines a spotlight — or rather starlight, all natural, of course — on the park’s unique darkness above its 3,541 scenic acres. It could soon gain global notoriety for that quality. The crew at Shades, one of 24 state parks maintained by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, is pursuing a designation for Shades from the International Dark-Sky Association as an International Dark-Sky Park, Douglass said. Two U.S. astronomers formed the association in 1988 to “to preserve and protect the night time environment and our heritage of dark skies through quality outdoor lighting.”

A Dark-Sky Park status is special. If Shades earns the designation, it will become the first official International Dark-Sky Park in Indiana, and one of only 75 in the nation and 103 in the world.

There’s work to do, first. Douglass said the park is working with neighbors on artificial lighting nearby to Shades. Also, the Shades staff is in the process of adjusting the lighting inside the park to point downward, reducing any glare on the night skyscape overhead.

The International Dark-Sky Association criteria for a Dark-Sky Park designation requires a park to be publicly accessible, and “legally protected for scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment purposes.” Its core area must “provide an exceptional dark sky resource” to the surrounding communities, the IDA guidelines say. And night sky brightness must be at least as dark as “21.2 magnitudes per square arc second.” That’s a measurement of the ability to see celestial objects, based on the intensity of surface lighting.

Douglass appreciated the IDA’s stringent criteria for a park’s designation. “You know it means something,” he said, “and it does to them.”

Those formalities won’t affect the scenery seen by folks attending Saturday’s Shades Star Party. Weather permitting, they’ll be latest of nearly 2,000 years of observers of the Perseid meteor showers, according to NASA. Each August, Earth passes through a cloud of ice, dust and debris shed by the comet Swift-Tuttle. The shower’s name comes from the Perseids constellation in the northeast sky, from which the meteors appear to radiate. Its peak, with up to dozens of meteors streaking through the sky per hour, happened in the overnight between Wednesday and Thursday, but plenty more should be visible Saturday as sunset gives way to deep darkness, starting at 10 p.m.

“As the program goes on, we’ll really be able to enjoy the dark sky in Shades,” Douglass said.

The park’s June Star Party hit a cloudy night. Kids and adults still enjoyed the space-themed crafts and activities, which will be offered Saturday, too. If it rains, the Star Party is off.

“Our fingers are crossed that we’ll have a less cloudy night sky,” Douglass said.

Shades features another unique park asset for stargazing, the former Roscoe Turner Flight Strip, a 3,000-foot-long, 120-foot-wide clearing where the stargazing will be centered. Any artificial light from the only nearby towns is blocked by the park’s northside forests. Amateur stargazers can use their naked eyes to watch the Perseid meteors, but Wabash Valley Astronomical Society members will have telescopes available, as well.

For those who can’t go, just stretch out on your sidewalk, patio or hammock and look up.

At least for a night, dreams might replace worries.
© 2022 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.