Stars at these parties are billions of miles away

June 20, 1993|By Adriane B. Miller | Adriane B. Miller,Contributing Writer

It's a perfect night for a star party. The air is cool, mosquitoes are at a minimum, and the darkness is so complete in Susquehanna State Park that a group of about 30 people have to feel their way around to avoid bumping into things.

For the next several hours, perhaps until dawn, the amateur astronomers and the campers assembled here will stand in the dark, point binoculars or telescopes into the sky and talk about what's out there, billions of light years away.

Twice a month during the summer, usually around the time of the new moon when the sky is darkest, the Harford County Astronomical Society sets up its telescopes in the state park and invites visitors in the campground to get a closer look at the universe. These star parties are free.

"We have a very special relationship with the rangers in the park, and when they made a special request that we set up our telescopes for the campers, we jumped at the opportunity," says Mark Krogel, an army mathematician and society member from Churchville. "People enjoy it, the rangers appreciate it, and it's a beautiful way to relax."

"We spend sometimes all night," says Stu Chapman, president of the society and an astronomy instructor for the Harford Community College and Southampton Middle School. "We have friendly competitions to see who can find the dimmest object and that kind of thing."

The Harford society consists of about 40 men and women who share an interest in star clusters, constellations and telescopes -- or who just like to count the stars at night. The group holds a monthly open house at the Harford Community College observatory on Thomas Run Road and has already held two star parties at Susquehanna State Park, yesterday and June 12.

Weather permitting, they also will meet in the park at dusk on July 17 and 24 and Aug. 14 and 21. Rangers will post notices about each party and its location on a bulletin board at the campground entrance.

For one star party this month, amateur astronomers and curious campers gathered at a level picnic area on Stafford Road, inside the park. Once dusk settled into night, viewing began in earnest.

Several campers brought their children, who stumbled excitedly from telescope to telescope to marvel at planets, gas clouds and galaxies too far away to comprehend.

In the dark, it was difficult to tell exactly how many telescopes were set up, but viewers had their choice of at least six to peer through.

Richard Hagenston, a communications consultant from Havre de Grace and a former society president, trained his 10-inch Newtonian reflector telescope at a spot where he thought he would see something worthwhile. Sure enough, he found a globular cluster.

"That's a cluster of about half a million stars, 20,000 light years away," he explained. In the eyepiece, it looked like a fuzz ball. Only after staring at it for a moment can the eye make out individual stars.

Next, Mr. Hagenston moved the telescope slightly to bring a ring nebula into focus -- the remnants of an exploded star.

"See it there? It looks like a green Cheerio," he said.

Knowing how old and how far away the objects are intrigues the astronomers as much as actually seeing the little smudges and dots through their powerful telescopes.

"I can point things out to you Jesus Christ has seen with his own eyes," Mr. Krogel said.

Objects as "close" as the planet Jupiter, about 387 million miles from Earth, are impressive through a telescope, too. Matt Orsie, a society member from Sykesville, directed his telescope at the giant planet. Viewers could see four of its moons, as well as a ring of dust surrounding it.

"You don't need a 20-inch telescope to enjoy the sky at night," Mr. Orsie said. "You can see a lot with the naked eye," or with

binoculars.

Earth's upper atmosphere is littered with satellites and space debris, he said, which are easy to see with or without binoculars at night.

"The satellites rotate, and the sun shines on them. As they move, it will look like somebody is signaling you. If you see it a lot, you train yourself to notice them," he said.

Mr. Orsie brings his wife, Jane, 3-year-old son Andrew and his 6-inch reflector telescope from Carroll County to the society's star parties and other events and enjoys the camaraderie of this group.

As the evening wore on, campers drifted away, some visitors lost interest, but the conversation remained lively among members. Some discussed formulas for calculating the age of stars; others pondered the meaning of life.

"We're so mesmerized by TV we don't get the chance to appreciate nature. There is so much people take for granted," Mr. Krogel said.

Gesturing at the sky, he added, "The whole thing is so profoundly fascinating if you consider all the improbable events that had to occur for us to be here."

Mr. Orsie said, "We are all made of star dust. Everything on the planet is a result of stars exploding. And we'll all go to star dust again."

Information: 836-4155 or 836-9703.

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