A group dedicated to inspiring and helping Minnesotans to view the wonders of the night sky is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
And the Minnesota Astronomical Society is inviting the public to a celebration of that milestone — and others — in one big event this weekend.
A Friday night "star party" and then the main, full day of activities on Saturday will mark the society's milestone year as well as International Observe the Moon Night, and the society's annual Fall Astronomy Day.
"They kind of all fell together on the same weekend. And so we're kind of trying to go all-out," said Lilah Blinkman, the society's outreach coordinator and the Eagle Lake Observatory program director.
This year is also the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission — the most recent time people set foot on the moon. To honor that, a nearly life-size replica of the Apollo 11 lunar module will be back on display at the gathering at the Eagle Lake Observatory west of the Twin Cities.
The observatory is located at Carver County's Baylor Regional Park, near Norwood-Young America.
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The event is open to the public and is free, with the exception of a dinner on Saturday evening — there's an option to reserve and pay for the meal on the society's website.
Blinkman said it's still exciting to watch people get their first look at the moon, or Jupiter, or Saturn through a telescope.
"Just that authentic reaction, you know, when people first see that — they're speechless," she said. "I had a woman once who teared up. She was like, 'This is like, bucket list." ... And she (said) 'Can I look again?' And I'm like, 'Of course, you can look at as many times as you want!'
"It's different than looking at pictures in a book or online. ... With your eye, looking through the telescope — that's always the best part, is seeing how happy it makes people."
The society's 50 years of outreach will continue this weekend, starting with the star-watching gathering from 7-10 p.m. Friday.
Saturday's events will begin at 1 p.m. with a series of talks on the history of the society and the observatory, and other astronomy topics. There'll be a door prize drawing — with prizes including a pair of binoculars and an 8-inch Dobsonian telescope — and then a laser-guided tour of the night sky at 9 p.m. before events wrap up around 10 p.m.
And there’s the lunar module replica. It’s not something people can climb inside, but they can walk around the outside and take photos, and retrace the steps of the Apollo 11 moonwalks, traced out on the field. (The Apollo 17 moonwalks couldn’t be re-created because the site isn’t large enough.)
Since its founding in 1972, the Minnesota Astronomical Society has grown to almost 700 members, Blinkman said — among the largest such statewide clubs in the country. Its members pursue a wide range of interests related to astronomy and night sky observations, but sharing all of that with others remains a key part of the group's mission.
"It's really such a cool and humbling experience to look at the night sky," Blinkman said.
"It's a very indescribable feeling" to look through the telescope, and help others do the same, she said. "Just, you know, thinking about what's out there, and all that's out there... Can't really comprehend it."
If you’ve never been to a star party or other night-sky event, the society has compiled more information, tips and guidelines here.