To See Heavens, Man Goes To Ends Of Earth

OUTDOORS

Head Of Astronomy Society Ready For Eclipse

May 08, 1991|By Marie V. Forbes

Some people would travel any distance for a dip of TCBY yogurt. Chris Roelle has different priorities -- he'd go halfway around the worldto watch an eclipse.

As a matter of fact, Roelle, president of the Westminster Astronomical Society, has done exactly that. In 1979, he scaled a 14,000-foot mountain in Peru to view a total solar eclipse.

In 1984, when weather altered his original plan to observe a solar eclipse from Assateague Island, he set off in hot pursuit of the best viewing position, ending up in North Carolina. Even more amazing,he persuaded his wife, Cheryl, a non-enthusiast, to alter vacation plans twice to make this holy pilgrimage.

Ironically, after all hisefforts, a jammed shutter on his camera prevented Roelle's photographing the thrilling "bead" effect produced by the sun's rays gleaming through irregularities on the surface on the moon.

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into space; in Kansas, an hour or so later, Chris Roelle was born. Considering his lifelong hobby has been astronomy and his career has involved space exploration, that seems more than mere coincidence.

Like most youngsters, Roelle played at spaceman games, but his real interest in astronomy began at about age 12, when his family was living in Nebraska. Hestill recalls vividly the excitement of viewing his first comet, a celestial body with the rather unromantic name of "Bennett."

"Bennett looked exactly the way a comet was supposed to look," he recalls. "I ran back in the house and got my parents out of bed. They were reluctant at first, but when they saw the comet, their mouths literally dropped open. They even woke my sister so she could see it, too."

Convinced that Chris's interest in astronomy was no passing fancy, his parents presented him with a telescope purchased at K mart.

"A cheap, 600-power refractor, the worst possible kind of telescope for akid," he says.

But by 1972, he managed to save enough money for a6-inch telescope, which he used until 1980. At that time, having moved to Maryland, he constructed a 12-inch telescope. Recently, he acquired a 20-inch telescope, which sits in the Roelle driveway on Salem Bottom Road, aimed like a howitzer at the heavens.

Roelle majored in engineering at the University of Nebraska. Before moving to Maryland, he worked on the Mars Observer Project during his six years at General Electric Space Division in New Jersey. He now works as a contract engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight installation.

"I've given up the idea of ever going into space myself, but I do feel as if my thought processes at least are going on to Mars," he says.

Upon moving to Carroll County, Roelle looked for other amateur astronomers. As the date of the 1984 eclipse of the sun neared, he organized a meeting at the Carroll County Public Library for anyone interested in astronomy.

"No one who came that night actually joined," he recalls. "Over the years, however, the group has developed, and the Westminster Astronomical Society is now the third largest club in the Baltimore-Washington area."

Today, the society has more than 70 members.Meetings, conducted in Lewis Hall at Western Maryland College on thethird Wednesday each month, keep members up-to-date on sky phenomenaand activities of other clubs.

Recent speakers have included Donald Kniffen of NASA-Goddard, who spoke on gamma ray observations conducted by space shuttle Atlantis, and James Follen of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab, who discussed "The Formation and Evolution of the Solar System."

Frequently, club members play host to "star parties" at their homes to share a night of observation. Severaltimes a year the group organizes star party camping trips at Hashawha Environmental Appreciation Center and Piney Run Park. Members set up telescopes and a slide show is presented before dark to show observers what to look for.

One problem for viewers in some parts of Carroll is the increasing urbanization that causes what Roelle refers toas "light pollution."

"Actually," Roelle says, "it's darkness that gets polluted by too many lights from towns and cities. For good viewing, the best spots within driving distance are in areas of West Virginia where it's nice and undeveloped."

As for Chris Roelle, where will he go next in search of the perfect eclipse?

"Mexico," he promptly replies. "I started planning for this summer's eclipse yearsin advance. At first, I thought Hawaii would be the best place to see it, but I'm concerned that it might be too cloudy there. Now I've got the job of convincing my wife that she'll really enjoy a vacation in the Baja."

TIPS FOR BEGINNING STARGAZERS

Chris Roelle says a pair of binoculars works better for beginning stargazers than a poorly made telescope.

"A good pair can be bought for under $100," Roellesays. "They're lightweight.

"Unlike the cheaper telescopes, a child can easily use them -- just point and look. Also, if a child losesinterest, binoculars have plenty of other uses."

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