A haven for stargazers

After years of fundraising, reopened observatory draws experts, amateurs

August 19, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The club started with seven members, a few telescopes and the night sky.

At first, the stargazers met in a parking lot at Harford Community College to view celestial objects. But as interest in the Harford County Astronomical Society grew, the members sought a permanent home -- a search that ended when the college built an observatory that the club agreed to run.

"Having an observatory made a world of difference," said Sal Rodano, a club member and physics professor at the college. "An observatory really supports the theoretical aspects of astronomy. It adds a feeling of reality."

For more than two decades, the observatory enticed hundreds of amateur stargazers. But when the college decided to expand Joppa Hall in 2000, the silo structure had to be relocated, said Leo Heppner, a founding member of the club. After the move, problems ensued. The floor wasn't level, the trees were too tall and outdoor lighting leading up the gravel path was poor, Heppner said. With no money available for improvements, the observatory was closed to the public.

But after seven years of paying for improvements as money came through the college and fundraising efforts, the facility reopened in May, and the club hatched plans to add new features to the telescope, to restart a children's program and teach astrophotography, Heppner said.

"Everyone lost when the observatory closed," Heppner said. "We lost members to groups such as the Carroll County group that has more than 500 members and we are hoping to get some of ours back."

Each month, the group holds an open house at the observatory for anyone with an interest in the sky. The annual membership fees range from $13.50 for an associate membership to $37.50 for a family membership. The group also offers an outreach program to schools and local organizations, and members assist with the astronomy classes at the college.

The open house events start at dusk -- about 9 p.m. in summer and 5 p.m. in winter -- and several of the group's 60 members are on hand to teach visitors how to use a telescope and read a star map.

The peak time of year for interest in telescopes is around the holidays, Rodano said.

"A lot of people get telescopes for Christmas," said Rodano, 68, a Fallston resident who serves as the college's liaison to the group. "When someone is shopping for a telescope, we tell them about the different kinds, and their pros and cons."

During the open-house events, members attempt to quash notions about astronomy, Tim Kamel said.

"The biggest misconception I hear about astronomy is that it's the same as astrology," said the 57-year-old, Bel Air resident. "I kind of laugh and tell people this is not pseudoscience here, it's the real thing."

Grace Wyatt joined the club in 1997 after she viewed the sky through a telescope for the first time, catching a glimpse of the Hale-Bopp comet.

"Almost everybody wants to look at the sky, they just don't always have the opportunity to do it," said the 48-year-old Bel Air resident. "When I saw Hale-Bopp and Mars, one look was all it took. I've been coming back ever since."

The location of the observatory appealed to Roy Troxel, who developed an interest in astronomy at age 10.

"I like telescopes and looking at things," said the 63-year-old Abingdon resident, who retired last year from a job in computer networking. "I like the Harford sky because it's so dark, beautiful and fascinating."

The largest crowds show up for astronomical phenomenon such as a lunar eclipse or a comet, Heppner said. Sometimes the viewing sessions lead to once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, he said.

"When the comet hit Jupiter [in July 1994], we were one of the first groups to see it," Heppner said. "We watched it build up for a few hours."

Huge crowds turn out for celestial events such as the fly-bys of comets Halley, which passed in 1986, and Hale-Bopp, which was visible to the naked eye for 18 months. More than 2,000 people came to see Halley, Heppner said, and about 1,000 showed up at each of the half-dozen open house sessions to view Hale-Bopp.

"We had to have four meetings for Halley's comet, because everyone wanted to see it," he said.

Club members teach the spectators how to photograph objects in the night sky, Heppner said. And eventually, club members plan to outfit the observatory telescope so the images it spies on can be shown on the Internet, he said.

"Kids today are into technology," he said. "We're trying to gain the interest of teenagers, so we are using techniques that appeal to them."

In an effort to reach pre-teens and younger children, the group is restarting "Deep Sky Investigators," a program in which children search for astronomical objects and earn certificates, he said.

"We are trying to do things to get teenagers involved again so they can take over for us when we get too old to do it anymore," Heppner said.

The Harford County Astronomical Society has scheduled open-house events on Sept. 22, Oct. 20, Nov. 17 and Dec. 15. For information, visit the group's Web site at www.harfordastro.org.

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