Studying the Stars
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
–Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words from the surface of the moon in 1969.
Since then, we’ve sent astronauts, rovers and satellites to explore the cosmos, but we’ve barely made a dent in the unending quest to find more planets like our own, more beings
like us and more wonders to witness.
The year 1969 may have been a few decades before my time, but I’ve always been fascinated with space, the stars and the theoretical hypotheses that govern them.
As an avid watcher of Star Trek and self-proclaimed “trekkie,” I couldn’t wait to join the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society (LVAAS) on a day of observation. What I really wanted to know: “Where’s Vulcan?”
I imagine my science-fiction nonsense got old, but my hosts were gracious and eager to teach me about studying the stars.
I met with Public Relations Director Eric Loch, Ron Kunkel and LVAAS President Rich Hogg at a members-only location for our night of observation. The site is littered with telescopes of every size for viewing all sorts of astronomical events including Deep Space Objects (DSOs).
The first difficulty any astronomer faces is locating the object(s) you want to see. The night sky is so enormous that finding a dim star or distant object can be quite a challenge. To avoid getting lost, it’s good to have a guiding point to get yourself from one location to another.
For instance, stars that shine bright are good starting points. If you can identify entire constellations, that’s even better. Traditional astronomers rely on this to find their way across the sky.
It’s now easier than ever to move across the night sky thanks to new technology. Kunkel and Loch showed me a telescope with a keypad. It has a directory full of galaxies, systems, planets and DSOs. Simply type in the one you would like to view, and the telescope will move to view it.
The field has advanced so much that it is possible for your backyard telescope to record live video. Loch showed me videos he took on his phone of the Horsehead Nebula. They are breathtakingly clear, with vibrant pops of color – something you wouldn’t expect from a phone image.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any cooler, Loch showed me a phone app called Sky Safari that allows you to view where in the night sky that object is, its trajectory and co-ordinates for finding it with your telescope.
Previously, star-gazers would shy away from the hobby because of the difficulty and equipment needed. LVAAS strives to make the introduction as smooth as possible, even offering to guide you in the purchase of a telescope to make sure you are buying one that suits your individual needs. Membership also comes with the ability to rent telescopes for traveling astronomers.
“It’s great for people who are interested in astronomy to get involved with a club like ours because it can be discouraging if you try it on your own,” says Hogg.
Founded in 1957, LVAAS and its 240-something members have assisted in important research for various organizations. One member was even a part of the decision to declassify Pluto from its previous planet status.
What started out as a gift from Berks County native and industrialist Henry Kawecki has grown into a full-fledged research and observation site that is often considered one of the finest, east of the Mississippi.
“We’re very fortunate to have something like LVAAS here in the Lehigh Valley,” says Loch.
Unfortunately, the warm day brought with it some clouds, and as any astronomer knows, clouds mean low visibility. It seems astronomy can be a conditional hobby.
Looking to the stars isn’t just for the contemplation of the meaning of existence, and the LVAAS proves that we can learn so much just from looking up more often.
Recalling an article he once read, Hogg pointed out the importance of astronomy, “The three biggest scientific mysteries that are still not explained were discovered through astronomy. …Dark energy, dark matter and the fact that neutrinos have mass are things we did not know and would not know if it weren’t for astronomical observations.”
LVAAS is hosting a star party on March 4 for interested individuals at their South Mountain planetarium in Allentown. The young children’s planetarium show starts at 6 p.m., astronomy talk at 7 p.m. and planetarium show at 8 p.m. For those who want to take up astronomy, LVAAS is accepting new members all the time. Visit lvaas.org to find out more about the group.