By 7 p.m. the air was warm and the sky was clear: a perfect night to stare at the stars. But had there been clouds, it wouldn’t have mattered. I was going to the planetarium show at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park, and the stars I’d be seeing would be projected on a giant dome above my head.

The speaker of the show announced he was a NASA employee, and after he fiddled with the controls a bit like an absent-minded professor, the room turned pitch-black and hundreds of tiny white dots appeared over our heads.

This is how the sky looks tonight, he explained, only without all of the light pollution that comes with being in the middle of San Diego. If we get a chance to drive out to the desert, we should, because that’s when we can see the night sky untouched by city lights.

These tiny stars looked so realistic that I felt content leaning back in my chair and just pretending I was in the desert while the speaker went on pointing out constellations and explaining the anatomy of comets. But as drawings of scorpions and vestal virgins filled my fake sky, the oohing and aahing and whispers of the crowd got harder to block out, until I was no longer in the desert and instead being quizzed on what planets the speaker was pointing to.

I left the show feeling a little disappointed. I didn’t have time to drive out to the desert, and I hadn’t done very well on that quiz.

Outside, though, the stars were pretty visible, and as my eyes came down to earth they rested on at least half a dozen telescopes pointed toward the sky. The San Diego Astronomy Association meets the first Wednesday of every month outside the science center to let the public ooh and aah at the real thing.

Members stand by to answer questions, or at least that’s what I assumed when I quizzed them on how the moon got so many craters, why Jupiter is just a tiny white ball, and whether those lights that slowly blink are satellites or UFOs.

I looked through the 5-foot telescope to find the gray moon amplified inside, with its splotchy holes and quiet solitude. Without the projected illustrations, I couldn’t pick out Leo the lion or any of the other constellations that had been revealed to me earlier in the dome, but this was much better: It was real.

The next "The Sky Tonight" planetarium show takes place September 3, with shows at 7 and 8 p.m. at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, Balboa Park, 619-238-1233 ext. 808, rhfleet.org. The dome will be closed the rest of the year for renovations.

The San Diego Astronomy Association holds monthly star parties beginning at dusk the first Wednesday of every month outside the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and the second Friday of every month at Mission Trails Regional Park. Visit sdaa.org for more information.

Have you been to the Fleet’s planetarium? Tell us about it below …

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