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.
Hoerstkamp, left, and Eric Behr, students from Richard Schwentkers
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.
Its 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.
one of the natural resources we have, which is darkness out in rural
Missouri, says Richard Schwentker, a science teacher at Washington
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.
Well see the
Lagoon Nebula. Well see the double cluster in Perseus. Thats
going to be really pretty tonight, Schwentker says, rattling off
objects he hopes to show his students. I dont know if well
get to see the Whirlpool Galaxy but thats really impressive. Well
see M13. Thats 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 Earths 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 newcomers
unfamiliarity with the sky and the complexity of telescopes can make
astronomy a daunting hobby to embrace.
parties, like the ICStars event held recently near Warrensburg allow
astronomers and would-be stargazers to compare equipment and learn
Basic designs differ in cost, function, ease
to the night sky
Astronomy clubs in Missouri
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 Missouris Laws Observatory in Columbia.
When youre a
beginner you cant find anything in the night sky, says Vaughn,
now the clubs 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 dont think Ive ever encountered
anyone at star party who isnt anxious to have people look through
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.
Were trying to
make ours a broad-based star party where you dont have to be an
astronomer to come, says Vic Winter, who is also hopes to host
public observing sessions at an observatory hes building on his
land. We want to draw the general public somebody who just
says, Hey, Id like to take the kids out and show them some
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 hes so busy showing others the sky
that hes neglected his own astronomy.
To be honest, I havent
made it all the way through the Messier list yet because Ive spent
my time building observatories and doing umpteen public outreaches,
he says. Thats 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. Were the ones
with the equipment and the know-how, he says.
Everybody has to see
this stuff, Bush says. Its so cool.