Embark on a celestial journey: Tahoe Star Tours illuminates mysteries of the night sky

Night sky viewing. | Tahoe Star Tours

On a lovely summer evening under an alpenglow sky and emerging waxing moon, a group of at least 30 people gathered at Northstar California to embark on a Tahoe Star Tour with Tony Berendsen. Sitting in Adirondack chairs with water, snacks, blankets and firepits at our disposal, our amicable star expert shared poems and a presentation about the night sky as it continued to get dark.

Berendsen has been leading this tour for 20 years in the Tahoe area and throughout the decades more than 30,000 people have gained a better understanding of our universe.

As the sky shifted from blue to black, Berendsen gave a presentation, opening it with a poem that he wrote titled, “Oh, How We Wonder.” It set the stage for a dreamy and educational experience featuring the Tahoe sky showcased in the main act. We learned about solar systems and exoplanets, the iconic Pale Blue Dot (nice work on calling that one, Katherine Hill) photo taken by the Voyager 1 and The Day the Earth smiled.

A fellow Tahoe Star Tours guide pointed out Vega, arguably regarded as the most important star in the sky after the sun by top astronomers. Through a telescope, I also saw a dead star, that looked like a water droplet that dried on a windowpane.

Tahoe Star Tours began when Berendsen started taking people out to Fernley, Nev., to show them the stars. Throughout the years it evolved into a partnership with Northstar California and holding these tours at the Dark Skies Cosmoarium with Celestron telescopes. Tahoe Star Tours’ mission is that “one day everyone will walk out under a starry sky they understand.”

We learned what the closest star is to Earth and how far away it is (it’s the Sun). Berendsen explained how our understanding of the night sky has also improved, thanks to technology and methods that allow us to measure stars up to 100 light-years away. Even traveling at the speed of light, which is impossible for humans, would take 100 years to get that far in the universe.

The term “planets” means “wandering stars” in Latin, because they end up in different places in the night sky. Through the presentation, we learned about different astronomers throughout history, such as Aristotle, Galileo and Italian philosopher, mathematician and occultist Giordano Bruno, who unfortunately was burned at the stake in 1600 for his heretic teachings. Years later when Galileo learned that moons were orbiting around planets, it opened a new world of understanding.

Berendsen told us about how stars are formed, how long they stay together and we saw a photo of Hal, the planetary disc. We learned about the James Webb Space Telescope coronagraphs and how they help scientists detect other planets and the dimming of stars, the size of planets and orbital speed. We even viewed a time lapse of how planets orbit around the stars.

By this time, the sky was a darkened blue and more stars emerged. Berendsen pointed to the Big Dipper, calling it his “signpost in the sky” for finding other constellations. However, he says that 40,000 years from now the stars will have moved around so much that the Big Dipper will likely not look anything like it does today.

Our expert star guide closed out the presentation with a poem called, “The Milky Way” and then we were led to the telescopes, where we were able to view the moon, Venus and Mars. As one of them pointed in the opposite direction of the moon, three kids peered through a lens.

“What do you see?” the woman with them asked.

“The moon,” a young boy said.

“It can’t be the moon, the moon is over there,” she said, pointing to the big visible-to-the-naked-eye ball in the sky. Then the next kid comes up and looks through the telescope.

“It’s a crescent,” she says. “It’s the moon.”

When I went up to the telescope, I knew I was looking at Venus, but I agreed with the kids. It looked like the moon.

A fellow Tahoe Star Tours guide pointed out Vega, arguably regarded as the most important star in the sky after the sun by top astronomers. Through a telescope, I also saw a dead star, that looked like a water droplet that dried on a windowpane. This star had diffused, burned through its hydrogen fuel. I learned that blue stars burn out faster than red and orange stars and then they recycle back into the atmosphere. It takes between 50 million to 10 billion years for a blue star to burn out.

Every time I look into the night sky, especially through telescopes, I’m blown away at how expansive the universe is and the relationship between time and space — and how lucky we are to have a dark enough sky to admire in our Tahoe backyard.

Tahoe Star Tours are held all summer at Northstar, Spooner Lake Visitor Center and with Tahoe Adventure Tours on the North Shore (which offers Snowshoe Star Tours in the winter as well). | tahoestartours.com

Star Tours

  • Until Sept. 2 (select days) | Northstar California
  • Until Sept. 3 (select days) | Spooner Lake State Park
  • Aug. 9 & 23 | Tahoe Adventure Company