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Rural Missouri Magazine

The Wonders Above

Whether alone or in groups, amateur astronomers find fascination in the heavens

by Bob McEowen

Dan Bush recalls the first time he ever saw the Milky Way. An avid amateur astronomer, Dan was just 15 when his family moved to Albany, a small town in northwest Missouri devoid of street lights and urban glow.

Shawn Hoerstkamp, left, and Eric Behr, students from Richard Schwentker’s Washington High School science classes, prepare for an evening of stargazing through a 30-inch reflecting telescope near New Haven. Large aperture telescopes like this allow astronomers to see faint objects in the night sky.

“My mom called me out and said, 'Look up,’” says Dan, now 35. “I looked up and saw all these stars and simply couldn't believe it.”

Many rural Missourians are accustomed to looking up at a dark sky and seeing a narrow, cloud-like band of stars stretching from horizon to horizon. While most are content to gaze in wonder, a few are driven to explore not only our own Milky Way galaxy but the universe beyond in detail.

“The things you can see in the night sky are unlimited. There are nebulas and planets and star clusters,” Bush says, referring to some of the many celestial objects he can see from his backyard observatory in Albany. “I just get a kick out of everything.”

It’s impossible to know how many people enjoy stargazing as a hobby but one thing is for sure: Rural residents enjoy a view their urban cousins lack.

“We’re exploiting one of the natural resources we have, which is darkness out in rural Missouri,” says Richard Schwentker, a science teacher at Washington High School.

The Orion Nebula, a gaseous “birthplace of stars,” is easily seen with any telescope or even binoculars. Located near the three-star “belt” of the constellation Orion, the Nebula appears to the naked eye as a fuzzy patch of light rising in the eastern sky during winter months. Photograph by Vic and Jennifer Winter/ICStars.com

Schwentker leads public stargazing sessions at East Central College in Union and gives extra credit to his high school students when they join him for a night of observing. Recently he hauled a group of his students up a rugged road to a private hill-top observatory near New Haven where he and a few fellow stargazers have placed an enormous telescope.

“We’ll see the Lagoon Nebula. We’ll see the double cluster in Perseus. That’s going to be really pretty tonight,” Schwentker says, rattling off objects he hopes to show his students. “I don’t know if we’ll get to see the Whirlpool Galaxy but that’s really impressive. We’ll see M13. That’s a globular cluster in Hercules.”

If some of the names sound like Greek to the students they can be excused. Beyond basing constellation names on Greek mythology, avid stargazers speak a language that is foreign to most of us. Who but an astronomer would know that the Lagoon Nebula is a formation of dust and gas with a dark area at its core or that the globular cluster M13 is a grouping of stars so dense it looks like a fuzzy ball of light when viewed through a telescope?

M13 is one of 103 star clusters, galaxies and nebulas cataloged by 18th-century comet hunter Charles Messier. While he saw these as things to avoid in his searches, today the Messier objects, which now number 110, are are among the most popular targets for amateur astronomers.

Unlike Earth’s moon or the planets of our solar system, most of these obscure targets are not visible with the naked eye. While binoculars reveal some, a telescope is needed for most. But the subtleness of the objects, a newcomer’s unfamiliarity with the sky and the complexity of telescopes can make astronomy a daunting hobby to embrace.

Star parties, like the ICStars event held recently near Warrensburg allow astronomers and would-be stargazers to compare equipment and learn from others.

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Tom Vaughn, an amateur astronomer from Jefferson City, recalls his frustration trying to operate a telescope he received as a present. “I put this thing together and took it out in the yard and I literally could not point it at the moon!”

Vaughn turned to the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, a Columbia-based astronomy club, for help. Besides activities such as Messier marathons where members try to find all 110 objects in one night, the group introduces the public to astronomy with observing sessions at the local library and the University of Missouri’s Laws Observatory in Columbia.

“When you’re a beginner you can’t find anything in the night sky,” says Vaughn, now the club’s secretary. “When you observe with other people they can show you how to find things and point out things that are interesting.”

The ultimate short course in astronomy comes in the form of weekend camp outs called star parties, such as the ICSTARS (as in “I see stars”) Star Party held recently near Warrensburg. Sponsored by the Stargarden Foundation, the not-for-profit arm of Vic and Jennifer Winter's astronomy travel and photography business, the event attracted nearly 50 astronomers who set up dozens of telescopes and spent a weekend immersed in the hobby.

“You get to go around and look through all these different telescopes,” says Vaughn who attended the event. “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone at star party who isn’t anxious to have people look through their telescope.”

Astronomers attending a recent star party examine the nearest star to Earth, our sun. Specialized filters make it possible to view the sun safely.

While the star party attracted die-hard astronomers its organizers hope to draw newcomers as well.

“We’re trying to make ours a broad-based star party where you don’t have to be an astronomer to come,” says Vic Winter, who is also hopes to host public observing sessions at an observatory he’s building on his land. “We want to draw the general public — somebody who just says, ‘Hey, I’d like to take the kids out and show them some stuff.’”

The desire to share the view through the eyepiece runs deep in the amateur astronomy community. Schwentker, a member of the Eastern Missouri Dark Sky Observers, says he’s so busy showing others the sky that he’s neglected his own astronomy.

“To be honest, I haven’t made it all the way through the Messier list yet because I’ve spent my time building observatories and doing umpteen public outreaches,” he says. “That’s how I enjoy astronomy.”

Bush, who teaches elementary school computer classes, hosts a star party for 5th grade studens each spring and writes a monthly column for his local newspaper describing things to look for in the night sky. His November column will discuss the Leonid meteor storm, expected to light up the sky Nov. 18-19.

“I think every amateur is obligated to share this with the general public. We’re the ones with the equipment and the know-how,” he says.

“Everybody has to see this stuff,” Bush says. “It’s so cool.”

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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