When George Sauter moved to Carroll County from Columbia in 1998, he paid attention to the night sky for the first time.
"I saw so many stars" that he had never seen before, he recalled.
Sauter was so fascinated with the stars and planets that he asked his wife for a telescope.
His attraction to the celestial bodies kept growing, and five years after moving to Carroll, Sauter, 42, became president of the Westminster Astronomical Society Inc. The society has been drawing amateur astronomers from the Baltimore area and educating the public about interplanetary sightings, constellations, stars and solar systems for 20 years.
"Our telescopes are time machines," said Sauter, who lives in Eldersburg. "Everything we look at is old. The sun we look at is 8 minutes old - light took 8 minutes to get to us. ... We are all time travelers."
Building on a growing interest in the Mars exploration and rare stargazing events, such as the recent transit of Venus, the astronomy club wants to build an observatory in Carroll County.
A handful of observatories exist in the region, including one at the Maryland Science Center in the Inner Harbor and another at the Maryland Space Grant Observatory at the Johns Hopkins University.
But the 90 members of the Westminster Astronomical Society note that their observatory would be away from "light pollution" - the bright lights of the metropolitan area that hinder stargazing.
"We see more stars here because it's much darker," said longtime club member Brian Eney, of Westminster.
The club wants to build the observatory at the county-owned Bear Branch Nature Center outside Westminster. The building would be equipped with three telescopes and a retractable roof instead of a dome. An open picnic area with a ceiling frame would take in the roll-off roof.
The group plans to raise the money for the project, estimated to cost $50,000, and pay for operating the observatory when it is opened.
Last month, the organization received preliminary support from the Carroll County commissioners to move forward on the project. The astronomical society and county officials are working out details to obtain final approval from the commissioners.
Club members hope the observatory becomes the county's education and resource center for astronomy, creating a new generation of stargazers and extra-solar planet hunters.
"Even if people are not interested in astronomy, they should look at the stars and the sky," said Jeff Asner, 51, of Dayton, a club member since 1998.
As part of its public outreach, the society holds public stargazing events, including one scheduled for 8 p.m. tomorrow at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area in Owings Mills. Another event is planned for 8 p.m. Saturday at Piney Run Nature Center in Sykesville.
Under the night sky earlier this month, astronomy society members gathered in the parking lot at Bear Branch, where the group holds its monthly meeting.
Just after 9 p.m., the sky was still hazy and light. Club members gathered around the four telescopes that were set up among more than a dozen cars on the parking lot.
Outside lights at the nature center were shut off. By 10 p.m., the sky darkened enough for members and visitors to see several constellations, including Scorpio, Leo and the Big Dipper, with the naked eye.
The amateur astronomers took turns looking through the telescopes. Eney peered through his homemade 10-inch scope to catch the planet Jupiter.
Wayne "Skip" Bird, club treasurer, aligned his telescope with Epsilon Lyrae, two pairs of bright stars in the constellation of Lyra. Several people crowded around Bird, looking at the "double-double" star, including 9-year-old Sean Linfield.
"I saw the double-double," Sean exclaimed to his father, Steve Linfield, a society member for two years.
"I think it's cool to see things off the planets and the universe because we can't get there," said Sean, who recently finished fourth grade at Charles Carroll Elementary School near Westminster. "My favorite planet is Uranus because it's tilted. I like wondering if it was knocked off by another planet."
The mostly male members pointed to the same childlike fantasy of being an astronaut and the age-old desire to discover the unknown in describing their passion for the stars, planets and space.
"You want to know how the universe came about," Asner said. "It's mind-boggling."
Standing a few feet away from where the observatory would be built, Sauter said the amateur astronomers would savor the new facility but ultimately, "it's not for us."
It would be for the community, he said.