Amateur Astronomers Gather For 'Star Parties'

Jun 2, 2019
Originally published on June 2, 2019 12:55 pm
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

For many of us, especially those who live in the eastern half of the United States, light pollution has taken away much of the night sky. But there are still a few spots far from the city lights. And each year, amateur astronomers gather there with their telescopes for what they affectionately call star parties.

NPR's Scott Neuman visited one of those parties in northern Pennsylvania.

FRED HUNTER: Should be dead center. You see it?

SCOTT NEUMAN, BYLINE: It's just after midnight. Fred Hunter and Bob Cava are looking for M11, an open star cluster in the constellation Scutum. They're using a method called star hopping - no fancy electronics, just estimating angles and distances from known bright stars to find what they're looking for.

HUNTER: Yeah, it's right there.

BOB CAVA: You can see it already?

HUNTER: There's Cassiopeia.

CAVA: Oh, there's Cassiopeia.

NEUMAN: From the cities and suburbs, light pollution has all but washed out these faint deep sky objects, and amateur astronomers fiercely defend the darkness here. White lights are strictly forbidden. Red headlamps are everywhere. Hunter is a retired school custodian from West Virginia who builds his own scopes.

HUNTER: I come to see the different scopes, to get ideas, to talk to people. And then the dark skies is just dessert. This is the dessert. This is sprinkles on your ice cream. Here it is.

NEUMAN: Cava is a first-timer from Princeton, N.J.

CAVA: I'm a chemistry professor.

NEUMAN: He and Hunter met by chance at this year's star party after they just happened to set up their telescopes next to each other. The two ended up observing together until the small hours.

CAVA: This is my hobby. I've been doing it for 30 years or something like that. And I thought I was an extreme amateur astronomer until I came here, and then I saw all the incredible stuff that some of these people show up with. I thought, I'm not crazy yet.

NEUMAN: Chip Templin is president of the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg that puts on the annual star party.

CHIP TEMPLIN: Yeah. Well, we may get a hundred good nights of observing in a year, say. Arizona has 300 good nights. So you have that to deal with. But a good night here is as good a night as you're going to find.

NEUMAN: One member of the Harrisburg club, Roxanne Kamin, is among the most serious amateur astronomers you're likely to find. With her 14-inch reflector, she enjoys looking for galaxies and nebulae that most others consider just too difficult.

ROXANNE KAMIN: I've always been a science geek ever since I was a little kid.

NEUMAN: Kamin also belongs to a citizen science organization called IOTA, the International Occultation Timing Association. They pool observations of the dimming of light that occurs when an asteroid passes in front of a distant star.

KAMIN: By measuring that dip in the light, which we do with video recorders and cameras, you measure that dip, and you can actually tell the size of the asteroid.

NEUMAN: Recently, she and fellow amateurs made similar observations of Pluto that will help scientists learn more about that planet's wispy atmosphere. But most of all, at least on this outing to Cherry Springs, Kamin is just content to be inspired by these rare skies.

KAMIN: When you look at M51 and you see the spirals of the arms of the galaxy, and you think, wow. You know, our Milky Way galaxy is like that. You know, and we're just this little, little, tiny speck.

NEUMAN: Scott Neuman, NPR News, Coudersport, Pa.

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