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Become an Amateur Astronomer

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You don’t need to own a fancy telescope to view the stars, planets and comets in outerspace. Learn where several local observatories reside – each offering opportunities to view the night sky in all its splendor.

Dramatic images from the Hubble Space Telescope, or deep-space probes like Cassini, as well as recent celestial events like the solar eclipse this summer, have spurred renewed enthusiasm among amateur astronomers for one of mankind’s oldest hobbies. (Photo by Joshua P. Thompson, Driftless Hills Photography, Dodgeville, Wis.)

Dramatic images from the Hubble Space Telescope, or deep-space probes like Cassini, as well as recent celestial events like the solar eclipse this summer, have spurred renewed enthusiasm among amateur astronomers for one of mankind’s oldest hobbies. (Photo by Joshua P. Thompson, Driftless Hills Photography, Dodgeville, Wis.)

Sometimes in fear, often with curiosity, we humans have for millennia looked to the night sky, seeking to understand our place in the universe. Early Greeks and Romans drew imaginary lines to connect the stars into meaningful patterns or constellations, often representing mythological figures or events. In the early 17th century, Europeans invented the telescope by using glass lenses to bring far objects nearer and in better focus.

Although solar eclipses occur in the daytime, most amateur astronomers spend their time viewing or photographing celestial objects in the night sky, such as stars, moon and planets in our solar system. Periodic events like meteor showers and returning comets are also viewed at night.

Most amateur astronomers agree you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to experience astronomy, although there’s plenty of it out there if you are so inclined.

With a lawn chair or blanket for comfort, on a clear night there are many things to enjoy with the naked eye or a pair of binoculars. A simple star chart will aid you in locating and identifying constellations, and meteor showers can be predicted far in advance.

For the more serious observer, there are several local astronomical observatories open to the public, where optical telescopes of varying power and quality can be used to view stars, comets, planets and deep sky objects like galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. Here are a few examples in our region.

Lockwood Observatory

Located in Lockwood Park at 5201 Safford Road in Rockford, this facility is maintained by the Rockford Park District, but operated by members of the Rockford Amateur Astronomers club (RAA). The club conducts free public viewing sessions on the second and fourth Saturday evenings year-round, starting at dusk in the summer, and at 7 p.m. the rest of the year. It’s also open for special celestial events.

The club’s primary telescope is a 10-inch [diameter of the lens] refractor under a 14-foot movable dome. The club also has several portable telescopes, from 6-inch to 18-inch lens sizes, which can be set up for viewing outside, or transported to other sites. The club has more than 40 members and meets monthly on the third Wednesday to conduct business, plan events and discuss various astronomical topics. It also maintains the website rockfordamateurastronomers.com and produces a newsletter for members. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in astronomy, at any level. Annual dues are $25 for individuals and $30 for families. All current members also belong to the Astronomical League, a nationwide umbrella organization that promotes amateur astronomy.

Robert Watters is president of RAA, and also chief designer at Astro-Physics, a local manufacturer of astronomy equipment [see related story]. A member of RAA since 1996, his primary interest is astrophotography or imaging.

“I like to shoot nightscapes, which show the night sky as background to the nighttime landscape,” says Watters. “The hobby has changed a lot in the past 10 to 15 years, due to digital cameras and other imaging techniques, which can produce high-resolution true-color images of very faint and distant objects.”

“We learn from each other,” says Augie Orlandi, current treasurer of RAA. He’s been a member for almost 30 years, and also enjoys astrophotography. “The club also provides friendship with people who have similar interests. You could get on the Internet and watch things through someone else’s equipment, but I’d rather be outside doing my own observing.”

RAA member Brandon Coppernoll, who is also an Astro-Physics employee, finds the public events the club sponsors to be one of the most interesting parts of the hobby.
“I like to interact with the public, especially the kids,” he says. “I enjoy the look on their faces when they see the rings of Saturn or Jupiter’s moons for the first time.”

Weiskopf Observatory

This observatory is located on the third-highest point in Ogle County at the Jarrett Prairie Center, 7993 N. River Road, south of Byron, Ill. It’s open for public viewings every Saturday evening, year-round, from dusk to about three hours later, unless it’s too cloudy to see the stars. During June, July and August, it’s also open on Tuesday evenings and for special events.

Observatory coordinator Vicki Funke has worked at the Prairie Center for about 11 years. She also leads birdwatching and wildflower hikes through the nearby prairie landscape.

“Dr. Weiskopf is a plastic surgeon in Rockford who donated the telescope and dome to the Byron Forest Preserve District in 1993,” she explains. “The main telescope is an 11-inch Celestron catadioptic, which means it uses both lenses and mirrors to focus an image. We also have two portable Dobsonian-type telescopes, a 17-inch and a 13-inch, but you sometimes need a ladder to reach the eyepiece on the bigger one.”

While located in a rural setting, light pollution is still a problem at Jarrett, according to Funke.

“The main source is Rockford airport, even though it’s 11 miles away. It lights up the entire northern horizon,” she says. “It wouldn’t be so bad if they would install lighting that only points downward – it would make a big difference. But it doesn’t only affect astronomers. The circadian cycles of birds and other animals are upset by it, too.”

During viewing sessions, Funke likes to describe things that help her audiences appreciate our place in the cosmos. “It gives you some perspective on how small we are on Earth, compared to everything else.”

Doug Firebaugh Observatory

This facility is located in the Park Hills Golf Course at 2892 West Stephenson Road in Freeport, Ill. It offers free public viewings on the first and third Saturday evenings, May through October, at 8 p.m., rain or shine. If the weather prevents observation, there will be a presentation or discussion on an astronomy topic. The program on Oct. 21 will be a review of the observing season just concluded.

“This is our 50th year in operation,” says Jim Dole, director. “It started out as the meeting place for the Freeport High School science club. Doug Firebaugh was the founding director and my astronomy teacher when I was a student there.”

The observatory has three telescopes for public use – a 5-inch refractor and an 18-inch reflector upstairs under a roll-off roof, which permits direct viewing of objects from horizon to horizon. Downstairs, a dome in an ADA-compliant building houses a 14-inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescope, which uses both lenses and mirrors to focus images. The mount, which attaches the telescope to the stand, uses GOTO technology that allows the viewer to enter data into a touchpad. The mount then points the telescope to the desired object and tracks it to provide a continuous image.

“That telescope is dedicated to electronically assisted astronomy,” says Dole. “We’ve attached modified video cameras to where the eyepiece would be, so we can display on a large flat-screen TV what the telescope is viewing. While the ’scopes upstairs only allow viewing by one person at a time, a whole group can watch the TV monitor.”

Also, the human eye can’t see color at low light levels (remember rods and cones from high school science classes?), but the video cameras can. While the direct-viewing telescopes show images in black, white and grey, the video images are in color.

“By having three different kinds of telescopes, we can introduce the public to the advantages and disadvantages of each type,” says Dole. “And the new technologies may spur more interest in the hobby, as well as make it accessible to people with disabilities.”

The Freeport folks belong to the Planetary Studies Foundation, whose headquarters in Elizabeth, Ill., contains a museum that promotes astronomy and meteor research. Dole teaches astronomy at Highland Community College and offers evening classes through the Freeport Park District in the spring and Highland’s Lifelong Learning program in the fall.

“Astronomy is a learning hobby,” says Dole. “If you read a book or an Internet article, or join a club where you can meet people who know more, you get a better enjoyment out of the whole thing. You can understand what you’re looking at.”

Yerkes Observatory

Completed in 1897, Yerkes’ Roman and Gothic style buildings are situated on 77 scenic acres overlooking Lake Geneva, at 373 West Geneva Road in Williams Bay, Wis. The property is owned and operated by the University of Chicago. Famous scientists Edwin Hubble and Carl Sagan did part of their research at Yerkes, and Albert Einstein visited the campus in 1921. In 1996, the site was used as a location for a science fiction film, “Chain Reaction,” starring Keanu Reeves. It included a gunfight on the roof, and an iceboat chase across Lake Geneva.

The 90-foot main dome houses the largest lens-type telescope in the world, a 40-inch (100 cm), 60-foot long refractor, which is still in use today. The wooden floor of the observation deck is 73 feet in diameter, and raises or lowers 23 feet to adjust for the inclination [distance above the horizon] of whatever is being observed.

Saturday tours are available through Dec. 30. The building opens at 9:45 a.m., with tours starting at 10, 11, and 12. Weekday tours, through Dec. 29, occur at 12:30 and 2 p.m. Observation events with the 40-inch refractor or the 24-inch reflector telescopes are available for participants 10 years and up, but must be reserved in advance. For more information, visit: astro.uchicago.edu/Yerkes.

Walter Trentadue is an amateur-turned-professional astronomer now living in Brodhead, Wis. A former police officer from Skokie, Ill., Trentadue returned to school after his retirement to study astronomy, a life-long hobby since he was eight. For a time, he worked at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, where he learned to make telescope optics, and has since published more than a dozen papers in scientific journals based on his independent research in astronomy.

Currently, Trentadue is an adjunct professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, where he teaches continuing education classes in astronomy. He’s the founder of the Galena Astronomical Society and conducts free public observation events once a month, May through October, at the Galena Territory Owners’ Club.

“I like to encourage everyone to learn about the skies, especially young people,” he says. “It’s such a wonderful resource. Unfortunately, the nighttime sky is slowly becoming a myth, due to light pollution. While there are almost 8,000 stars visible to the naked eye in a dark sky, in Chicago skies, there are only about 25. That’s scary!”

Trentadue attends “star parties” all over the country, gatherings of astronomers in dark-sky regions. In fact, he was on his way to one in Kenton, Okla., when we contacted him. He has an online business selling meteorites from around the globe, and he also repairs telescopes.

“I have no observatory,” says Trentadue. “All my telescopes are portable. I am currently grinding the mirror for my own 20-inch Newtonian-Dotsonian reflector telescope. The surface has to be accurate within one-millionth of an inch.”

The Solar Eclipse of 2017

Most of the astronomers NWQ contacted, in this region, scattered to the four winds to view the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21. Vicki Funke at Byron was the only one who opened a local observatory for area residents to view the partial eclipse from our location.

“We had a lot of people at Weiskopf,” says Funke. “We put a solar filter on the telescope and watched what we could through the clouds. We could see it pretty well, right after near-totality.”

RAA members Robert Watters and Augie Orlandi traveled to Nebraska and Tennessee, respectively.

Watters says, “We rented a 30-by-30 plot, but we couldn’t set up until the morning of the event. While we were waiting, we met people from all over, even some from Italy. I’ve seen partial eclipses before but this was totally different. When the sun finally dips behind the moon, everything goes dark, but not completely. There’s this weird light – not twilight, not dark, not daylight. It was incredible. I’ll definitely be chasing the next one in 2024!”

“I had my own star party in Tennessee,” says Orlandi. “I was the only one with a telescope, so I invited everyone to view sunspots while we waited. Unfortunately, due to an equipment failure, I wasn’t able to get the kind of photographs I wanted.”

Jim Dole also traveled to Nebraska, but not to take photographs. People encouraged him to go for the experience and not get caught up in adjusting equipment during the event.

“They were right,” he says. “We were at the entrance to an 11,000-acre cattle ranch. It was almost beyond words, an ethereal thing. Especially if you understood what was happening. To see the beauty of it almost made you cry. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen!”

Local Astro-Physics a Leader in Astronomy Equipment

Astro-Physics, located at 11250 Forest Hills Road in Machesney Park, Ill., is a local company that has put Northern Illinois “on the map” for producing ultra-high quality astronomical equipment. The business began in 1975 when Roland Christen, an electrical engineer and amateur astronomer, designed and built a piece of equipment for his telescope that wasn’t commercially available.

“To photograph the dim light of stars, you need to make long exposures,” explains Karen Christen, Roland’s daughter and business administrator at Astro Physics. But during such exposures, the Earth continues to rotate and the stars appear to move.

“My dad designed a piece of equipment that would move his telescope to counter this rotation, and track the object he was photographing,” she says. “The device he invented was called the Startracker. Since then he has expanded the business into manufacturing other equipment for astronomy, primarily telescopes and mounts. The mount connects the telescope to the tripod or pier, which in turn supports the entire system.

“Mounts have advanced dramatically in the last 20 years,” says Christen. “They’ve become motorized, computerized and automatic. You can now run your entire telescope system from your computer – remotely, from anywhere.”

Some astronomers, in fact, pack and ship their equipment to remote locations like the New Mexico desert, where people have created telescope “farms.” There, in dark-sky regions with little cloudy weather, others set up the system, while the owners manipulate and view the results on their home computers.

Astro Physics employs only 20 persons, most of whom have been there for several years. Their primary telescope, called the StarFire, is a 130 mm triplet refractor, about 29 inches long, a very high-end, high-performance piece of optical equipment.

“These telescopes are precision-crafted, not made quickly,” says Christen. “We have more orders than we can possibly fill in a short time. The ’scopes we’re making right now will go to people who signed up on our interest list in 2009.”

What do they mean…?

comet – a celestial body, usually made of rock and ice, which produces a tail as it nears the sun during its orbit.

constellation – a group of stars which observers have connected by imaginary lines to represent meaningful patterns; by consensus, in 1928 the International Astronomical Union named the 88 modern constellations to formally define regions of the sky.

eclipse – occurs when the shadow of one celestial body falls on another; lunar eclipses are caused by the shadow of the Earth on the moon; solar eclipses are caused by the shadow of the moon on the Earth.

galaxy – a large system of stars, gas, dust and dark matter bound together by gravity; our solar system is part of the Milky Way Galaxy.

meteoroid – a relatively small object that enters Earth’s atmosphere at high speed and vaporizes; if it survives entry and falls to the surface, it’s called a meteorite.

nebula – a cloud of dust and gases in interstellar space.

observatory – a building used to house telescopes and other equipment to look at distant objects in the sky; usually has a movable roof or dome which opens.

planetarium – building in which are projected stars and other sky images on a dome-like ceiling in a dark room to simulate the night sky.

reflector telescope – it uses curved and polished mirrors to focus the image; typically shorter than a refractor, because the image bounces back and forth within the housing.

refractor telescope – the first type invented, it uses typically large lenses to capture and focus images, usually within a long tube to increase the focal length (hence magnification) of the scope.

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