The night sky has a Howard County fan club.
With darkness all around and a symphony of crickets playing, people gathered in an empty field in Columbia, lined up behind telescopes and waited for their turn - hoping for a peek at the secrets Out There.
It was Friday night, and more than 100 children and adults responded to the call put out by a Howard Community College professor: Come out and look up.
"Oh, that's awesome!" said Seth Orensky, 11, of Jessup, peering through a telescope eyepiece at Jupiter - 400 million miles away but so clear that he could make out its brown bands and four of its moons.
To the naked eye, Jupiter is a bright speck set off against the midnight sky, but Seth could see it move down the eyepiece as it hurtled through space.
This - the telescopes, the looking and learning - is Russ Poch's idea.
A science professor at the community college since 1972, he started inviting folks to public sky-watches at the Columbia campus a little more than 20 years ago. The demand was there: Every time he brought his astronomy stu- dents outside to stargaze, others wanted to tag along.
He tries to organize at least two gatherings each year and has found that promises of closer looks at stars and planets will attract a good crowd. Special phenomena draw throngs.
Five hundred people gathered around the lake at the college to see Halley's comet return from its trip around the sun in the spring of 1986, Poch said.
"It was just filled, the whole way around the lake, because of the rarity of the event," he said. "It ended up being a good view."
The campus - and the town that surrounds it - has changed substantially since he issued his first invitations. Buildings stand where open space once was; the sky is hazy with city lights, even at the hours when it should be pitch black.
As far as astronomers are concerned, light is pollution.
"You can't see the Milky Way galaxy around here," Poch said.
Even so, stargazing is a popular hobby in the area. Maryland has nine clubs, according to the Astronomical League, a national organization of amateur sky-watchers.
And despite the extra light, people keep coming to Poch's events. They're curious.
Mike Hall, president of the new Howard Astronomical League of Central Maryland, calls it a "free show."
"There are so many things out there - we're talking hundreds of thousands of objects - to look at, and they're all different," said Hall, whose group holds its "star parties" in the western part of the county.
"You just never run out of things to look at," he said.
Even if it's relatively run of the mill.
"Stars - look, Mom, look up!" said 10-year-old Cary Carr of Elkridge, his head thrown back and his eyes on the sky.
Friday night was the first time Nina Carr took her three boys on a stargazing trip. She's been teaching them about the solar system, and this fit right in.
They were among the first in line for Poch's telescope - a bulbous affair that he pointed toward a double star called Epsilon Lyra.
Framed in the eyepiece were the two stars, close together but with a bit of the darkness of space between them.
Faenita Dilworth, a Columbia resident who brought her 9-year-old daughter and 9-year-old neighbor, let the girls peek first and then took a look for herself.
"Suddenly, there was a world out there you didn't see - like `Star Trek' up close," she said.
Poch's telescope was one of four set up on a field behind the tennis courts. The rest were brought by amateur astronomers, such as Dana Boltersdorf of Columbia, who built hers from a kit.
She set it up in a particularly dark spot on the field, aimed it at Saturn and watched as people caught a glimpse of the planet's rings - often for the first time.
Then Boltersdorf stuck a thin flashlight between her teeth, switched the eyepiece and tipped the telescope toward Jupiter.
She loves this.
"I'm not a professional, and I'm not advanced in astronomy in any way, but I try to put a fire under people because when I was a kid, I wished I had some 'scopes," said Boltersdorf, who belongs to the Howard league.
"I'm completely obsessed, and my children think I'm nuts," she added, laughing.
But the folks trying out her telescope were impressed and grateful.
John Liebman, a 47-year-old from Columbia, has watched the sky for years without a telescope. He uses binoculars. They're powerful, but only as steady as his hands, so he came to the community college for "a chance at something better."
"Even with binoculars, it's fascinating, and more people should try it," he said.
"It just expands my world - instead of being a creature of this planet, suddenly I'm a creature of the universe."