A guide to stargazing and observing the cosmos from Kansas City
Get a close-up look at the celestial bodies in our universe from one of the Kansas City region's observatories, or see shooting stars with your naked eye during the Perseids meteor shower in August.
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Sometimes, Kansas City feels like the center of the universe, a rising star of the Midwest. At others, we’re reminded that we’re just an infinitesimal speck in the swirling mass of the Milky Way Galaxy. Beneath that starry canopy, we live and dream and gaze above, star-struck by its magnitude and awe.
Putting that majesty into detail, NASA released first images from the James Webb Space Telescope on July 12, revealing exquisite, glittering images of galaxies far, far away.
But celestial bodies have always fascinated us. They’ve guided our travels, told our fortunes and shaped our lives. In Kansas, the motto “Ad Astra Per Aspera” (To The Stars Through Difficulty) was adopted in May 1861, signifying Kansas’ long battle to statehood and joining the union.
It's also the season of the Perseids meteor shower, which began July 17 and continues through mid-August. Your best chance of seeing meteors is during its peak on August 12-13.
Explore the cosmos with this celestial tour of Kansas City:
Look to the stars
Get a close-up look at the celestial bodies in our universe from one of our region’s observatories.
The Astronomical Society of Kansas City (ASKC) provides education and outreach to the Kansas City community. It was founded in 1924 and is one of the largest astronomical societies in the country.
ASKC runs two observatories and hosts astronomy-related events as well. The group's general meetings (on the fourth Saturday each month) and Second Saturday Astronomy (second Saturdays), as well as other astronomical information, are shared on ASKC's Facebook page.
On the UMKC campus, the Warkoczewski Observatory is located on the roof of Royall Hall. Warko (pronounced “var-ko”) is open to the public on clear Friday evenings from May to October, starting at dusk. The prize of the telescope collection is the 8-foot-long, 16-inch diameter, 900-pound custom-built telescope made by Stan Warkoczewski as a gift for his wife, Helen, in the mid-1950s.
It took him over nine years to build and they housed it in their backyard. They donated the telescope to UMKC and it was installed in 1974, a part of the campus for nearly 50 years.
The site is staffed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable ASKC volunteers. The best way to tell if it’s open is to check their Twitter feed @WarkoSky. You can access Royall Hall via the skybridge from the fourth level of the parking lot at Rockhill Road and 52nd Street, then proceed up a stairwell to access the roof.
About a 45-minute drive south of the city, the Powell Observatory is located in Louisburg, Kansas. There, ASKC hosts public events on the first and third Saturdays of the month, May through October. Coming up in August, you can learn about the phases of the moon or dive into the dark universe with ASKC volunteers at Powell.
In our modern era, one of the difficulties we face is to even witness the stars that made our ancestors marvel so. Light pollution in the city sprawls into space, eradicating the million year journey of light from distant galaxies.
Dark Sky Missouri (part of the International Dark-Sky Association) offers suggestions for locations in Missouri and its state parks, complete with a printable brochure for viewing the Milky Way in its glory.
The night of the new moon with a clear sky is the best time to go stargazing. It’s easy enough to track moon cycles with calendars, apps or just paying attention to the 29.5 day lunar cycle.
Want to catch a shooting star? The Perseids meteor shower happens each summer, following the flight of the comet Swift-Tuttle. It's one of the brighter meteor showers of the year and is currently underway and overhead. In Kansas City, the peak of the phenomenon occurs August 12-13.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Kansas Flint Hills is a perfect skygazing spot, registering between class 2 and 3 in the Bortle scale. Unlike many state parks, the preserve is open 24 hours a day. From the crest of a hill, the stars surround you, constellations traveling horizon to horizon.
ASKC owns a Dark Sky Site (DSS) outside of Butler, Missouri, and hosts the Heart of America Star Party Sept. 23-25. The 40-acre campsite has everything an enthusiastic group of astronomers need: space for tents and RVs, electrical hookups for their enormous telescopes and a facility with showers, kitchen and restrooms. The event also includes daytime activities at local historical sites and evening talks about astronomy. It’s a paid event open to anyone who wants to attend.
Mark your calendars now for the next lunar eclipse visible from Kansas City, Nov. 8, 2022. The next total solar eclipse over North America is April 8, 2024.
The celestial bodies inspire us, from the mythologies that shaped our understanding of our role in the universe, to the science that explains the mysteries of the cosmos. Storytellers have woven tales from these luminous bodies and artists have given those tales shape.
In Oppenstein Brothers Memorial Park, at the corner of 12th and Walnut streets, is Celestial Flyaways, a work by the late Lauren DeAngelis. The installation includes the interactive sculpture called Star Disk, the world’s largest anaphoric clock.
Buttons adjust the position of the disk to reveal the exact location of the 457 stars above, with constellations etched into metal. At night, LED lights shine up from beneath. The work was installed in 2008 for Art in the Loop, and is a collaboration with DRAW Architecture + Urban Design.
Linda Hall Library houses some exquisite archival texts related to celestial cartography, or star maps. Star atlases are full of calculations and painstakingly detailed drawings, with sketches of the mythical characters from Greek and Roman stories in the constellations. Many have been scanned and can be perused online, including this celestial atlas from 1894.
The library also offers a research guide related to their astronomy materials, including the online exhibit Out of This World: The Golden Age of the Celestial Atlas.
You can tell stars apart from planets because stars twinkle due to their emitted light traveling through the atmosphere. Planets reflect light from the sun, instead of generating their own.
Depending on the time of year, you can see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn with the naked eye (though binoculars or a telescope certainly help). When you make a wish on the first star at night, it’s probably a bright planet that you’re actually seeing.
Take a tour of our Solar System with a mile-long stroll along Baltimore Avenue. “Voyage” was created by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. Starting just south of 13th Street, installations demonstrate the distance between the planets’ orbits (though they also state that the planets don’t ever actually form a straight line).
The tour journeys to 18th Street, where Pluto and Eris are nestled under the shadow of the iconic TWA rocket adorning the Barkley Building. The “Explorers Entry” is located on the south side of Union Station, demonstrating humankind’s (and robotkind’s) journey through the universe.
Also in Union Station, the Arvin Gottlieb Planetarium offers programs related to astronomy and space exploration that cater to families and student groups. Now through Sept. 5, there’s Sky Station Live Seasonal Tour and Destination Solar System.
If you're up for a road trip, the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas, houses a collection of space artifacts (which includes rockets), a planetarium, space exploration-themed movies and other space-related activities.
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