Masters of their Universe

Amateur astronomers are becoming stars in their own right.

Stars In Their Eyes

On streetcorners, in back yards and on NASA flights, amateur astronomers are changing the face of stellar observation.

Cover Story

February 23, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Late at night, far out on the Eastern Shore where the glare from Maryland's urban corridor dwindles, a wild profusion of stars shines. On a starlit ball field in Tuckahoe State Park, near Hillsboro, a coven of amateur astronomers has gathered on this moonless autumn night to turn their telescopes and their imaginations to the heavens.

"That's a nice-looking sky up there," Don Surles says softly, amid a clamor of unseen crickets, cicadas and hoot-owls. He surveys the bright trail of the Milky Way that spans the sky, stepping carefully among the darkened shapes of dozens of fellow stargazers and their upturned telescopes.

Surles, 60, a engineer with DuPont, heads the Delmarva Stargazers, amateurs from Maryland and neighboring states who come here regularly to camp, share the view, share their know-how and, on this night, their vegetable soup. But mostly they come to indulge their common love of the night sky.

"None of us ever has everything we need, or sees what we want to see every night," Surles says. "But you always remember that night when the sky was steady, the binoculars worked, the view worked, and it was gorgeous."

For amateur astronomers like the Stargazers, such nights are more than ever within their grasp. An explosion of new and more affordable technology -- small telescopes, digital cameras and computers -- are enabling hobbyist stargazers to see things and make scientific contributions that were once the exclusive reserve of professionals. Amateurs are educating school children, building meteor-tracing gizmos coveted by NASA, and tracking stellar "eclipses" that are expanding knowledge of asteroids and the sun.

But on this particular night at Tuckahoe, there is no cutting-edge science on the agenda. Instead, this is the Delmarva Stargazers' annual "No Frills Star Party," a weeklong campout minus the food, lectures, swap-meets and door prizes that clutter up some other such gatherings. Tonight is all about good company and dark skies.

"It's just a very friendly bunch of people," says Surles. "No question is too dumb to ask. Everybody would be more than thrilled to have you look through their telescope."

In the dark, it's hard to say how many people have turned out; Surles says they typically draw from 125 to 250. "We've got young people; we've got retirees, professional people, doctors, attorneys, teachers, engineers, chemists; people who are craftsmen -- painters, carpenters, welders," he says. And tonight, they're all equals, helping each other find elusive nebulas, glittering star clusters and hazy galaxies. Or, they're comparing notes on their equipment, some costly and store-bought, lots of it homemade.

Surles, for instance, spends part of his evening under a tent stitching up telescope "dew covers" -- quilted bags to ward off condensation -- for members. "Amateurs tend to be people who like to tinker," he says as his sewing machine hums. "Like these 'scope coats. They sell [commercially] for $50. But for $5, we can make 'scope coats better than you can buy. That's just tinkering."

Delmarva members also meet annually in Smyrna, Del., where they teach each other how to grind their own mirrors and assemble other gadgets for their telescopes.

Ralph Gruen, 50, a Dumfries, Va., construction manager, has ground a 10-inch mirror for a telescope he is building. But tonight, he is observing with a big Newtonian refractor built by a friend from a 50-inch length of aluminum irrigation pipe.

"As a kid, I had a little telescope," he says. "But the eyepieces were such poor quality, you didn't see much." Gruen dreamed for years about buying a good telescope, but didn't take the plunge until 1994, when he spied an 8-inch Celestron in a pawn shop. He didn't buy that one, but it lit a fire. When he found a more powerful 10-incher, he took the bait.

Gruen's is a common story among amateurs -- a childhood fascination, frustrated for years by poor-quality telescopes, finally satisfied in adulthood.

"I've always been interested, but I never got a telescope," says Teri Young, 34, of Severn. She nurtured her interests with The Learning Channel and NOVA programs until her husband bought her a small, 3 1/4 -inch Meade refractor for her 30th birthday. A year or two later, she bought an 8-incher -- "my first grownup 'scope," she says.

Aided on this night by star charts and an electronic gizmo that helps her pinpoint her aim, she guides a visitor smoothly to the Ring Nebula, and Albireo -- a beautiful, brilliant double star, one blue, the other amber.

"You don't have to be scientific or a technical person to enjoy this," she says. "All you have to be able to do is read a map."

Darryl Mason began to look up at the night sky when he was 6 years old and his teacher at Baltimore's Callaway Elementary School began talking about the planets.

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