Stargazers keep on looking up

Devoted group shares marvels of space

October 10, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to the Sun

Joel Goodman became fascinated with the majesty of the skies when he was about 7 years old, and President John F. Kennedy vowed to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s.

A 54-year-old dentist and Clarksville resident, Goodman purchased his first telescope in 1990 and joined HAL -- the Howard Astronomical League -- in 2000, about a year after it was created.

On a recent warm night, Goodman and about 40 other members of the club, a nonprofit organization for amateur astronomers, had set up telescopes in Alpha Ridge Park and were waiting for the sun to set so they could begin to search out their favorite celestial delights. Some members had come from Frederick, Carroll and Montgomery counties.

"There aren't too many big astronomy clubs," said Marc Feuerberg, who has been president of HAL for the past three years. "If you're into astronomy at all, you kind of end up here."

HAL, which has about 120 members, holds "star parties," such as the one at Alpha Ridge, several times a month. The group also holds sessions at local libraries and schools, with the goal of creating a new generation of sky watchers.

Astronomy in general is sort of like ham radio. It was popular just after World War II, when basement-workshop tinkerers built telescopes from spare parts and bits of junk, but now it is "kind of graying," said Chas Rimpo, the club's events coordinator.

Though a decent telescope can cost as little as $300, the average age of amateur astronomers remains high, said Gary Hand, owner of telescope store Hands On Optics in Damascus. As a hobby, said Patrick Ramsey, who works with Hand, "it is dying."

Members offer several reasons for the decline: Pollution and light from development make spotting the stars more difficult; kids today would rather look at stuff on computers than go outside; people think the hobby is more expensive than it is; people think the telescopes are hard to operate.

But they say there's nothing like being outdoors, looking at the sky and contemplating Earth's tiny place in the universe.

Members also note that most members of HAL and other astronomy clubs are well-educated, interesting people. And they note that these days, telescopes are easier to use than ever, thanks to computers that can pinpoint stars and planets with the touch of a few buttons.

"Before computers, people really had to know the sky and where everything was, in order to find things," said Rimpo.

Tony Kuzak, 45, of Frederick County said he first became interested in astronomy during the fifth grade, on a nighttime field trip in Simi Valley, Calif., where he lived at the time. Kuzak said his teacher showed the kids Jupiter and Mars and was "real big on teaching us all the facts, like the distance between the sun and the Earth." Kuzak has been hooked ever since.

HAL members are doing what they can to make a similar impression on a new generation of potential astronomy lovers. They frequently visit local libraries, letting kids and their parents peek through the telescopes, and they hold classes, sponsored by the Department of Recreation and Parks.

Goodman is the founder of a group called Howard County Celestial Searchers. The group, created in 1999, meets at Bushy Park Elementary School and is open to Howard County students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The history of HAL actually dates to the 1940s, when professional astronomer Paul S. Watson created an elaborate telescope, which the Johns Hopkins professor kept on his Eastern Maryland property overlooking the Magothy River. In 1988, Watson's heirs donated the telescope to the Friends of the Baltimore Astronomical Society, a group formed specifically to receive and restore the telescope.

Over time, members of the Baltimore group lost interest or moved away. As a result, some remaining members decided to move the club to Howard County. The fully restored telescope and a dome that will be used to create an observatory are stored in Feuerberg's Catonsville basement.

Plans are under way to place the observatory in Alpha Ridge Park, said Rimpo.

Alpha Ridge was chosen as the site partly because it is conveniently located near Interstate 70, but mostly because it has little light pollution, said Goodman.

It might be a few years before the observatory is actually in place, Goodman said, but once it is complete, it will be run by HAL members and be open to the public. And it will give HAL a place of its own, Rimpo said. Currently, the group holds meetings at Recreation and Park offices.

And, of course, there are the star parties. During the recent star party, as members were adjusting telescopes both large and small, everyone stopped to watch the International Space Station go by.

The telescopes dotting the field were useless for this particular sighting (too powerful, too slow to follow such a fast-moving object), so people simply squinted at the sky. The evening was so clear that some members said they could see the station's panels.

"I wish I had brought my binoculars," said Hand.

For more information about the Howard Astronomical League, visit the Web site at www.howardastro.org.

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