Amateur astronomers are seeing stars

Groups are happy to share their telescopes and knowledge to help public learn to enjoy

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

Local Clubs:

Vancouver Sidewalk Astronomers, http://www.vsausa.org/; email vsa@cableone.net.

Southwest Washington Stargazers, http://www.swstargazers.org/; email list at http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/Southwest_Washington_Stargazers/.

Upcoming Events:

• Aug. 31 to Sept. 4: Oregon Star Party in Central Oregon, admission $75 for adults, $25 ages 13-17, $15 ages 6-12, free for kids under 6, http://www.oregonstarparty.org/.

• Sept. 8, 8 p.m.: Southwest Washington Stargazers regular meeting, Manor Evangelical Church, 17913 NE 72nd St., Battle Ground.

• Sept. 17, 7:30 p.m.: OMSI Autumnal Equinox Celebration, Rooster Rock and Stub Stewart state parks, Oregon, http://www.omsi.edu/starparties.

Stefanie Adams’ two young sons charged through the twilight, smiling and giggling across the grassy park as they waited for the big show to start.

You’d almost think the pair, ages 3 and 5, were there to see a new Disney film. But this show — the Perseid meteor shower — is put on for free every year by nature.

As the skies grew darker, the boys began to settle down and look upward, hunting for streaking meteors at what would be their first star party, hosted by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Rose City Astronomers and Vancouver Sidewalk Astronomers.

For each meteor they saw, host Jim Todd, the OMSI planetarium manager, encouraged them to let out a yell.

Despite the bright moon blocking some of the view, Adams, who lives in Vancouver, said her first star party with the kids was a great experience.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for years, but the kids were too small and the stars never, um, aligned,” Adams said. “I think the earlier you can start kids with curiosity about the Earth, the more it serves them later in life. This should be part of every education.”

Getting started

Astronomy can be a fun, relaxing and inexpensive hobby for people of any age.

You don’t even need a telescope to get started, just your eyes and a map of the sky, said Tim Anderson, a member of Rose City Astronomers.

“My advice always is to start small,” Anderson said. “The way I started, I just borrowed some magazines from the library and started looking at their charts.”

Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines have very good maps and stories each month for beginners about how to find objects in the sky, including planets and constellations, he said.

If you want to spend a little money to make the experience better, Anderson recommends getting some decent binoculars — and avoiding cheap rickety department store telescopes.

“One of the most frustrating things for us as amateur astronomers is people who need help with their grocery store telescopes,” Anderson said. “They lack the stability you need to really see anything. They’re too wiggly, too cheesy.”

In comparison, binoculars are great for looking at the moon and bright stars, he said. And after a bit of training, you can also learn to pick out other galaxies in the night sky.

Star parties

Organized star parties are another inexpensive way to learn more about astronomy from enthusiasts who are eager to share their knowledge.

Groups such as the Vancouver Sidewalk Astronomers and Southwest Washington Stargazers often bring a variety of telescopes and encourage visitors to take a look at objects in the night sky, said Scott Kindt, a founder of the Southwest Washington Stargazers.

“The reason we put on star parties is to give the general public a chance to use our telescopes, which tend to be big and spendy,” Kindt said. “We come out to share not just our toys but our passion and knowledge of the universe.”

One of the things he likes about astronomy is that it makes you think about the world from a different perspective.

The light from stars in the night sky left those places millions of years ago and is only now reaching Earth, so in a way it’s like a time machine, he said.

“Some of the stuff that we see doesn’t have that big wow factor until you start thinking about what it is, how far away it is,” Kindt said. “Like if you look at a star cluster, it looks dim, maybe you see a dozen stars there, but really there are half a million of them there, all bunched together.”

The vast distances of space and the mystery of how everything got there fascinates Adams, too. She said she hopes to teach her sons to share that interest.

“For me this is about getting back in touch with the sky and the stars,” Adams said. “It gives me a better perspective on everything.”

Etiquette

There are a few things to remember when attending star parties.

For one, white flashlights and car lights are bad for night vision, and if you use them other visitors to the star party will probably get irritated with you.

“Bright light is a big no-no, if you have one we ask you to turn it off,” Todd said.

Red lights are acceptable, such as LED flashlights, bike lights or a car’s parking lights.

People at star parties are also welcome to go up and talk to astronomy club members who have telescopes set up at an event. But always ask before you look through somebody else’s equipment, Todd said.

Other things to bring are warm clothing, bug repellent, snacks, water, blankets and folding chairs.

“Also remember it’s easy to lose your kids in the crowd, so stay close and monitor them,” Todd said.

Ambassadors

One of the best parts of star parties, most amateur astronomers agree, is the chance to show young people the wonder of the night skies.

“I just love chatting up the kids, they’re so interested, but they have little experience in how to get started,” Anderson said. “I love to see them get excited about this.”

Kindt also loves to show children the night sky through his telescopes, both at star parties and at home when he’s checking out the heavens on his own, he said.

“I try to be an ambassador for it,” Kindt said. “I actually take my telescope out on Halloween and let the kids look through it before they get their candy.”

That gets a mixed response from young trick-or-treaters. Some just want to get their candy and go, but others grow fascinated and stick around for several minutes asking him questions, he said.

“Last year there was this little girl who came, and she looked and looked and then had to back away to give the other kids a turn,” Kindt said. “After they left and her family was moving on to the next house, she kept looking at the telescope and looking at me. I told her, ‘Go ahead, look as much as you want.’ It’s so great to see that.”