San Juan College Planetarium director continues to adapt AstroFriday presentations

David Mayeux taking this weekend's show outside

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
San Juan College Planetarium director David Mayeux will lead an outdoor AstroFriday presentation this weekend in the courtyard between the Planetarium and the Connie Gotsch Theatre.
  • This month's AstroFriday show at San Juan College takes place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22.
  • The show will be held in the courtyard between the Planetarium and the Connie Gotsch Theatre on the college campus in Farmington.
  • Admission is free.

FARMINGTON — The ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced San Juan College Planetarium director David Mayeux to go old school.

Mayeux has been delivering the popular monthly AstroFriday series in the college's Planetarium for many years, usually offering a recorded video on a particular theme that is projected on to the building's domed ceiling.

But Mayeux hasn't been able to deliver his monthly shows in their traditional format since the pandemic began because of restrictions on mass gatherings or limits on crowd sizes because of social distancing requirements. For most of the past 18 months, he has been presenting the AstroFriday shows in a virtual format via Zoom.

This weekend, Mayeux again will resort to another option — an outdoors AstroFriday presentation that uses the actual night sky instead of a recorded show screened inside the Planetarium. It's an approach he has experimented with for the past two months, and Mayeux said he believes conditions finally will be optimal for that format.

"The forecast, if it holds, looks really good right now," he said.

Mayeux scheduled this month's AstroFriday show for a date after the full moon in order to have as dark a night as possible. To augment his efforts, he plans on using a green laser pointer so that visitors can follow his line of sight with the naked eye, and he'll be offering enhanced views of celestial objects through a telescope.

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He plans on leading visitors on a "tour" of the middle autumn night sky, highlighted by glimpses of the planets Jupiter and/or Saturn, as well as the Andromeda Galaxy and the double star cluster in the constellation Perseus.

Mayeux said he always enjoys seeing the latter, which he described as resembling two piles of blue diamonds nestled on black velvet.

"It really pops," he said.

Mayeux also hopes to be able to show visitors a cluster in the constellation Cassiopeia known as the "Owl Cluster" to most astronomers. But Mayeux has his own name for the formation.

"I've always called it the 'E.T. Cluster' because of its resemblance to the movie character," he said, chuckling as he noted how that reference to the 1982 Steven Spielberg film dates him.

Mayeux said he will be using his new laser pointer for the show, explaining that the human eye is most sensitive to green light. He also plans on using a digital eyepiece on one of his telescopes that will allow him to transmit an image to a computer, then project it on to one of the walls that line the courtyard. That way, the entire crowd should be able to enjoy enlarged views of Jupiter and Saturn at the same time, he said.

The outdoor format has its advantages and disadvantages, he acknowledged. But Mayeux seems genuinely excited about this month's show after mostly cloudy weather limited the viewing opportunities at the first outdoor presentation in August and scheduling miscommunication limited turnout in September.

With cold weather approaching, he said this could be his last outdoor AstroFriday presentation until the spring, although he is hoping the weather will be mild enough to allow him to do another one in November.

The AstroFriday series likely will not return to its traditional format until the pandemic is over, he said. While the Planetarium technically is allowed to have crowds up to 75% of capacity, he said, the facility also must enforce social distancing measures that require parties to remain 6 feet apart.

In practical terms, he said, that means the cozy confines of the Planetarium can only accommodate 12 people for a show — a nonstarter, as far as Mayeux is concerned.

That probably means the AstroFriday series will be returning to a Zoom format for the winter, although Mayeux said he hopes he can develop other alternatives.

"I'll play it by ear until I see what works," he said.

Mayeux said he will be announcing his plans for the series and the schedule via the San Juan College Planetarium Facebook page.

The AstroFriday show takes place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22 in the courtyard between the Planetarium and the Connie Gotsch Theatre on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Admission is free. Call Mayeux at 505-566-3361.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.