Ocean Worlds

Mountain Theater
Mt. Tamalpais State Park ranger kicking off Astronomy Program at the Mountain Theater. Stage in background is set for the Mountain Play’s production of West Side Story, opening May 22.

Mt. Tamalpais’ Mountain Theater – a natural amphitheater built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s – is perhaps best known as the site of the Mountain Play each spring. Lesser known, but no less impressive, is the Mt. Tam Astronomy Program, now in its 28th year on the mountain.

Held monthly on a Saturday from April through October, the program kicks off with a lecture by a professional astronomer, physicist, or space scientist. Audience members are then guided through a brief night sky tour, highlighting prominent constellations, stars and planets, before being invited to a telescope viewing (star party) by the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers.

April’s event was rained out, so May kicked off the 2016 program with NASA Ames Research Center’s Dr. Chris McKay providing an entertaining romp through the “Search for Life in Ocean Worlds of the Outer Solar System”.

While Mars may have gained “It Planet” status of late thanks to Andy Weir and Matt Damon, Jupiter’s moon, Europa, and Saturn’s moons, Titan and Enceladus, are making waves (pun intended) in the search for alien life, or as Dr. McKay termed it, the “second genesis of life” in our solar system.

Enceladus seemed to be of particular interest to Dr. McKay, thanks to the recent discovery of hydrothermal vents on this little moon. Apparently, this is a big deal because we see these vents in the bottom of Earth’s ocean, too. And life thrives there! (Cue theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

The broad cracks or “Tiger Stripes” of Enceladus at the southern pole are the source of the hydrothermal plumes. Image from NASA/JPL-CalTech/SSI.

Exciting stuff, but we might be in for a long wait. Dr. McKay anticipated he won’t get data back from a mission to harvest the plumes of Enceladus till 2038. At which time, the first Mars One settlement would have had approximately 10 years to figure out how Mark Watney grew potatoes on Mars.


  • When: Each Saturday between the new and first quarter moon from April through October. Check out the 2016 schedule here.
  • Location: Cushing Memorial Amphitheater (a.k.a. Mountain Theater), Mt. Tamalpais, Mill Valley
  • Directions: From Hwy 101 take the Hwy 1, Stinson Beach exit. At Tam Junction, turn left onto the Shoreline Hwy (also called Hwy 1). In about 2 miles turn right onto Panoramic Hwy. In 3/4 miles the road splits 3 ways. Take the middle fork. In about 5 miles the Pan Toll Ranger Station will be on your left. Turn right through the gates across the road from the station and continue for about another 1 1/2 miles to the Rock Springs parking area.

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