Stargazing 101: Colorado universe of amateur astronomers expanding rapidly

Our solar system has been out there for 4.6 billion years, but it seems more people than ever are becoming seduced by its beauty and mystery.

Predictable celestial events such as lunar eclipses, meteor showers, rare planetary phenomena and so-called “super moons” are attracting keen interest from a growing number of amateur astronomers. Stores that sell telescopes and astronomy accessories have been doing booming business since the pandemic. Membership in the Denver Astronomical Society has increased nearly 60% over the past four to five years, according to past president Ron Hranac.

Meanwhile space exploration is making news. Last month the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope dazzled earthlings. Last year, NASA’s fifth robotic rover on Mars began sending new pictures from the red planet. Hardly a week goes by without one or more launches from the Kennedy Space Center.

At the end of the month, NASA is scheduled to launch Artemis 1, the most powerful rocket ever built. That un-crewed test flight will travel to the moon and back, marking the first step toward what NASA intends to be a sustained human presence there.

“Because we are in this golden era of lots of space exploration, both with space telescopes and planetary missions, I think that drives a lot of interest,” said John Keller, director of the Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado, who got his first telescope when he was 10 years old. “There’s always been interest in the sky, for thousands and tens of thousands of years. The ways people are accessing it continue to evolve.”

When a rare conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn occurred just before Christmas in 2020 — an 800-year event — the phone at the Mile High Astronomy telescope store rang “off the hook,” according to employee Zachary Singer. Sales were already booming because of the pandemic.

“We had a real supply problem, not just because suppliers were trying to make telescopes under COVID, but demand had just gone through the roof because people were isolating,” Singer said. “People were getting stimulus checks and they were saving money because they weren’t commuting to work. If you were still working, you were saving piles of money, you were staying home and you wanted to be away from everybody else. What’s a good solo thing to do?”

Perhaps it wasn’t merely for a pastime, though. Perhaps contemplating the infinite vastness of space was comforting while a microscopic virus was turning our world upside down.

“Shops like Mile High Astronomy and pretty much every other telescope dealer in the U.S. had an incredible interest in telescopes and binoculars,” Hranac said, “and they’re still going crazy.”

There are many ways novice astronomers can learn about the heavens and how to enjoy them. Astronomy aficionados recommend two magazine websites, Astronomy and Sky & Telescope, both of which inform readers on how to enjoy upcoming celestial events. The Denver Astronomical Society has a very informative page on its website offering advice on how to become an amateur astronomer.

At CU, the Fiske Planetarium offers 10-12 shows and lectures weekly, Thursday through Sunday. On most Friday nights there are public viewing nights at the adjacent Sommers-Bausch Observatory, where the public can look through a huge 24-inch telescope and two 20-inch scopes (those dimensions indicate the diameter of the aperture, not the length of the telescope). At those events, graduate students and other faculty members are available to provide information and insight.

“That’s a chance to meet people, talk about astronomy and ask questions about telescopes, binoculars, what is up in the sky, be shown constellations,” Keller said. “Some people come back multiple times. Other people just go out on a date and bring their partner, just to look at the sky.”

The Denver Astronomical Society, which has 850 members, hosts public nights on Tuesdays and Thursdays that include lectures and the opportunity to look through the 20-inch telescope in the Chamberlin Observatory at the University of Denver. Reservations are required and are limited to 15 people.

“We are booked into October already, which just blows my mind,” Hranac said. “Normally we’re four to six weeks out, but we’re way past that.”

In addition, the club hosts monthly open houses for the public that are usually timed for the Saturday closest to the first quarter moon. Members set up telescopes on the lawn outside the observatory and invite the public to look through them.

“People come out and enjoy views of whatever is in the night sky through member telescopes,” Hranac said. “It’s a good chance also for people to bring telescopes they may have had sitting in the closet and really aren’t comfortable using or setting up. We’ll help them with that.”

Events like those are great ways for amateur astronomers to gather information to help them decide what kind of telescope to buy. Singer tells customers its all about tradeoffs.

“You want the biggest instrument that does not make you crazy, and there’s two ways to go crazy,” Singer said. “One is budget. The most expensive one is not necessarily the one you want. Neither is the biggest one.”

Singer owns an expensive 12-inch telescope, which means the reflecting mirror is a foot in diameter.

“That’s much bigger than most of the telescopes we have in the shop,” Singer said. “The catch is, the optical tube alone weighs 50 pounds. And because it’s such a beast, you need a giant mount to stick it on. That’s another 35 pounds. That’s a lot for a lot of folks to haul around, especially for casual views of the moon. It’s overkill.

“They’d be much happier with something like a six-inch or an eight-inch, which is going to be more compact and cheaper, which will still show you quite a lot. If you had a lousy day at work, you’re going to say, ‘The heck with my boss, I’m going to take out my nice easy telescope, lose myself in the sky and relax.’”

A decent 80-millimeter (three-inch) beginner refractor telescope can be purchased for around $200. “It’s not the greatest telescope,” Singer said, “but it’s good enough to show you amazing views of moon craters, decent views of Jupiter and Saturn and Mars.”

Singer is quick to add that a telescope is not essential for enjoying celestial events.

“You can get a lot from astronomy with a star chart or a planisphere,” Singer said. “A planisphere is like a little wheel with a star chart, and it shows you what’s overhead at any time of day or night, anytime of the year. You can get something like that for $10, and it will show you where the constellations are.”

Free apps are available to help skygazers identify stars, planets and constellations from their smart phones.

“Anybody who really wants to start, all you need is to get out of the city and let your eyes dark adapt,” Singer said. “This time of year, when the Milky Way is high above in the south around 10 p.m., you can just blow your mind for free — no telescope required. Binoculars are nice, but also not essential.”

Humans have always been fascinated by the heavens. But now, Keller notes, we know that the universe was made up of hydrogen and helium when it was formed and that all of the other atoms that make up our solar system — and our bodies — were formed inside the cores of stars.

“Those atoms were inside many, many other stars that existed before us that died and blasted their materials out into space before they formed our solar system,” Keller said. “When we look up at the heavens, we’re kind of going back in time, looking at our origins. We are connected to the universe we are viewing and we have the capacity to have thoughts about that. There could have been a universe without us to witness. The fact that we get to observe the sky and know from where we came, we’re adding cognizance of the universe itself.”

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