- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

Look, look," says Bill McHale, president of the Greenbelt Astronomy Club, as he cranes his neck skyward.

Rising in the southwest is a light as bright as a motorcycle headlight. It is the international space station arcing silently over snow-covered Wolfe Field in Greenbelt, where the 80-member amateur astronomers' club is hosting another Saturday night star party, an outdoor get-together of telescope owners who communally explore the heavens.

Mr. McHale and another dozen club members are bundled against the biting night air and frozen ground. Their tripods pierce the snowy field as club member point their telescopes in different directions to check out their favorite stars and planets. Thermoses of coffee and hot chocolate are at the ready. Blankets for warming up are stashed in the cars parked nearby.

Greenbelt, home to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, has so many astronomers that the city is in the midst of erecting its own municipal observatory. Its astronomy club, now in its 10th year, stages star parties and other events throughout the year, runs programs for children and families and even publishes some scientific reports.

Yet it is just one of a dozen such clubs in the Greater Washington area groups of sophisticated amateur astronomers whose passion is sharing their love for the skies with those who want to learn. They will brave any kind of weather to sate their curiosity.

Ed Abel of Silver Spring is one of these starstruck sky watchers who delight in spreading the word. Here at Wolfe Field he is focused on the moon, checking out the Catharina Crater, which he likes to think is named after his wife Catharine. Both are retired accountants from the former Bell Atlantic.

Mr. Abel has an 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, or SCT, a reflector telescope just like the one Isaac Newton invented in 1665. Only his is upgraded, filtered, and digitized to take pictures of the night sky and the sun itself, and to store the photos on his home computer.

"I blame it on my dad," he says in explaining his fascination with the stars.

He grew up in a tough New Jersey town, and his father wouldn't let him play on the streets, so he took to watching the stars at night.

"I fell in love with it, of course," he says. "And a few years ago, when my dad was 89 years old, I was able to repay him, kind of, for the 'gift' of confining me to the yard. I showed him the moon through my scope, and he had never, ever looked through a telescope in his life."

" 'What is that?' he asked when he saw the mountains and craters on the moon," Mr. Abel recalls. "He was absolutely amazed that that's what's out there. It kind of thrilled him, I guess like it does for amateurs like us who come out like this."

"Hey, there's Andromeda," says Mr. McHale to a visitor, offering a peek through his telescope. Visible to the naked eye under clear, non-light-polluted conditions, the Andromeda galaxy is the Earth's largest neighboring galaxy. Known as the "little cloud" to ancient Persian astronomer Abd-al-Rahman al-Sufi in his Book of Fixed Stars from 964, it appears as a puff in the dark northern sky seen through Mr. McHale's scope.

The Orion Nebula pricks the eastern sky, a visual reward for telescopes of every size and easily seen with the naked eye as a faint blur around the star Theta Orion. Through Mr. McHale's scope, it jumps to life as a mysterious swirl around the pinprick of the star's light.

The Beehive Cluster, or Praesepe, is nearby, a brilliant lace of stars easily captured by the naked eye. Galileo counted 40 stars using his scope, but astronomers today number 350 stars in the cluster, making it one of the brightest in the night sky.


So it goes, as members invite newcomers to look through their scopes. Steve Miller, a University of Maryland teaching assistant from Berwyn Heights, is visiting for the first time and brings along the Meade EXT70 telescope he got for Christmas. He swings his scope around to keep up with the older hands who know their way around the universe better than he.

At some parties, Lynn Gilliland and George Gliba will point out where Mr. Gliba discovered a meteor shower. Albert Shelder, a geneticist at the Food and Drug Administration, will bring out his robotic scope and buzz around the galaxies, telling tales of his boyhood in Texas, when his father gave him the option of either a bicycle or telescope as a birthday present.

"You know which present I picked," says the editor of the club's magazine, The Meteor.

Valerie and Matt Elliott may reminisce about how they first met at a Greenbelt Astronomy Club star party and later married. She wears a necklace given by her mother-in-law, a polished piece of the meteor that crashed to the ground in what is now Odessa, Texas, 20,000 years ago. He says his mom tells everyone that from the time he was 3 years old he wanted to be the first man on the moon. Today he works on his doctorate in physics at Johns Hopkins University.

"We come out from all around the Beltway to see the stars," says Mr. McHale, a computer programmer. "All kinds of people, really, who find it just fun to learn from each other, and track down little parts of the universe."

Sometimes at night, when a bottle of something may be brought out, "some darned interesting discussions begin at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning," he says. "Religion, death, and love, oh, everything sometimes get hashed out over these scopes."


Star parties may be the best way for amateur astronomers to learn what they're seeing, but most want to take the hobby a step further to making their own telescopes.

That's the point of the National Capital Astronomers' Club's telescope-making workshops, held every Friday night at the Chevy Chase Community Center, off McKinley Street and Connecticut Avenue NW in the District.

On a recent Friday evening, 8-year-old Mark Satter, a third-grader at Lafayette Elementary School in the District, is busy grinding a disk of clear glass about the size and shape of a hockey puck, rubbing it over and over again as his father David looks on.

"I want to see the stars," says Mark, carefully applying water and a carbon abrasive to the disk every few minutes before grinding again. "I want to see them close."

Watching is Guy Brandenberg, a teacher at Alice Deal Middle School in the District, and Jerry Schnall, a retired patent examiner, regular instructors at the workshop. With another half-dozen adults in the class, the boy is making his own telescope mirror.

Round and round move Mark's slender hands. His goal is to shape an arc so shallow it rises merely 36/1,000th of an inch at its highest point. After about 10 hours of grinding, the instructors will help him glaze and then assemble the 4-inch mirror into the components of a telescope kit, making a scope perfect for backyard use.

Since the 1960s, NCA has taught telescope-making; has organized star parties and field trips overseas and across the country to view eclipses, comets and satellites; has hosted lectures by local and visiting astronomers; and "just about everything else you can imagine for amateurs who want to know more about the stars, and planets and heavens," says club president Jay Miller.

It is the only area amateur astronomy group offering telescope-making, and along with the other dozen or so groups, it gives would-be stargazers a chance to learn about astronomy, offers the equipment necessary for exploration and allows development of the necessary skills, he says.

"It's a community, really," says Mr. Miller, a retired biophysicist at the National Institutes of Health who remembers looking at the stars near Pittsburgh when he was a boy in the 1940s.

The NCA was organized in 1937 and is one of the oldest astronomy clubs in the nation. Mr. Miller tells newcomers to also check out the Analemma Society in Great Falls, with its own large observatory on a farm; the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club; the Baltimore Astronomical Society; and the Greenbelt Astronomy Club. All, he says, are places where beginners receive a warm welcome and the priceless opportunity to learn from others.

"There are hundreds of people every week throughout the Washington area who bundle up, and through clubs like these, go out to see for themselves the wonders of [the] universe," he says.

He says it's hard to explain why they do it. Then he gives an answer of sorts: To him, he says, viewing a total solar eclipse is "a religious experience."


"I started out grinding my own telescope mirror," says Sten Odenwald, an astronomer who holds a doctorate from Harvard and heads NASA's Education and Public Outreach program for the IMAGE satellite project, a two-year program to explore Earth's magnetic force field. "I know the motivation and inspiration that can bring someone to curiosity about the heavens."

"You go outside and look at the sky and feel this overwhelming sense of being awestruck," he says with passion. "I can't figure it out, it's a bunch of light hanging in the night sky. It's the strangest thing that you can imagine, that you can have anything in this black thing hanging over the earth at night with points of light in it."

"In a very nonverbal way," says the Kensington father of two, "the heavens strike you as a mystery. Your mind is trying to wrap itself around this thing at night, and it comes out as a sense of awe, of profound mystery."

"Then when you learn about religion," says Mr. Odenwald, who has written four books on astronomy and is the creator of the Astronomy Cafe Web site, "you learn words, that this was made by God, that this is heaven. Your faith helps you express what you up to now have only felt nonverbally."

After building a first telescope or beginning to attend star parties, he says, "you learn even more words to describe this experience. The technical language of telescope buffs, or the specific language of plotting the motion of the night sky, or tracking satellites circling the earth."

Being an amateur astronomer can "fill you with a wonderful sense of being connected with the things you are seeing," he says. "Curiosity can blossom. Maybe you'll start reading science fiction, and because you're not terribly satisfied about living on this planet you dream of worlds that might not be."

"So, go to star parties and get drunk on the stars," says the NASA educator. "Connect with the cosmos, and you'll be on your way to becoming literate about what science may do for you and our place in the universe."

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