Home of the Stars : Astronomical Society Holds ‘Parties’ to Scan for Heavenly Bodies
Vance Tyree had left the city behind. Now, with his two telescopes planted on a remote hillside under a brilliant night sky, he seemed light-years away.
“That blew up perhaps 50,000 years ago,” he said as he sighted a wispy arc of gas--the vestiges of an exploded star--toward the core of the galaxy. The amateur astronomer--one of several dozen camped together on a cold night--was photographing the deep sky with four cameras mounted on his five-inch refractor telescope. Meanwhile, he searched the cosmos through his handmade, 12-inch reflector.
He swung the device from the dead star to a gas cloud where infant stars are being born. Moments later, he found Andromeda--a galaxy more than 15,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away, its billions of stars visible only as a tiny puff of white.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Tyree said, “to think that this light (we’re seeing) left there before humans were what we are today.”
For Tyree, 49, a microelectronics scientist who wears a Saturn-shaped belt buckle, the chance to explore these remote worlds--to wonder if there are “creatures out there, looking back"--is part of the magic of these “dark-sky meetings” held by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society.
The gatherings, also known as “star parties,” occur on moonless nights near Mt. Pinos, 90 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Members usually stay the night or all weekend, bringing their campers, tents, telescopes, star charts, flashlights and, not least of all, intellectual zeal.
As night falls, the society enforces a strict ban on white lights so as not to mar the rural blackness; members use dim red flashlights as they huddle over charts in the search for obscure nebulae, galaxies, planets and star clusters. A popular challenge--the subject of occasional all-night marathons--is to find objects in the Messier series: 110 celestial bodies catalogued by 18th-Century French astronomer Charles Messier, who believed he was discovering comets.
“M-13 is going to be straight overhead tonight!” exclaimed society President Tim Thompson, a professional radio astronomer at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as the most recent star party began. M-13 is a globular cluster of at least a million stars, bound together in the Milky Way’s interior.
“There’s M-22!” someone else shouted after spying another globular cluster near Uranus.
At 5,200 feet, far from homes, street lamps and heavily traveled roads, the sky became the kind of glittering showcase that must have fired the imaginations of Galileo, Van Gogh and eons of star gazers. Only the distant glow of Los Angeles marred an otherwise black canopy. Celestial features stood out with compelling intensity: the luminous swath of the Milky Way, the bright vertexes of the constellations--Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Sagittarius--the fleeting pyrotechnics of shooting stars.
“Whoa! Look at that!” a member cried as an especially large meteor blazed toward the west.
“I’d say that was going for two or three seconds,” someone answered.
“An excellent one!”
About 60 members were nearly invisible as they worked their telescopes, arranged on concrete pads laid by the group. To study and appreciate the universe are about the only lofty purposes of the society, but it is certainly no fly-by-night organization.
It was established way back in 1926 as the Los Angeles Telescope Makers, a group that met regularly in a basement at Griffith Park, and today its membership is about 300.
Yearly dues are $25 and anybody can join, although most serious members end up investing $800 or more--sometimes $6,000--in telescopes and accessories. “Star members” pay an extra $50 a year and are assured a concrete telescope pad even on the most crowded party nights.
In its largely uneventful history, the society has been able to thank its lucky pulsars for at least two acts of unusual generosity. The first involved Orion Ernest, a gifted member who was best known for designing and building the mechanical birds used in Alfred Hitchcock’s film classic “The Birds.”
In the mid-1970s, Ernest built the society’s first large telescope--a 16-inch model that has been permanently installed at the group’s three-acre site near Mt. Pinos.
Later, the group’s then-president, Tom Dorff, struck up a friendship with astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto in 1930. Tombaugh arranged for an anonymous donor to part with two telescope mirrors in 1986. One, an optically perfect 31-inch mirror, is probably worth $100,000, Dorff said. The other, a 40-inch mirror that needs a new aluminum coating, may be worth at least as much.
The society got both. The 40-inch mirror went into storage. Dorff said he and former treasurer Steve Kufeld spent “tens of thousands of hours” and $12,000 over several years constructing a 31-inch telescope with the other mirror. It is the largest available to non-scientists in Southern California. It was assembled at a city observatory in Monterey Park, where members meet on Wednesday nights, and hauled to the hillside near Mt. Pinos.
Although its computerized tracking system is incomplete, the new telescope was in operation this night, showing the rings and moons of Saturn and the ultra-faint Dumbbell Nebula, among many other curiosities.
A few members took turns climbing the metal ladder for a look, but most were far more involved with their own scopes. Tyree, who has been photographing the stars for more than a decade, was making two 90-minute exposures of the North American Nebula. With two tiny red bulbs clipped to the bill of his cap, he talked of photons and physics while calibrating a device to keep his telescope perfectly in line, despite the spin of the Earth and the undulations of the atmosphere.
High school senior Jim Steenhoek, 16, of Hawthorne had found Saturn and a breathtaking double star but was having difficulty finding the Helix Nebula. “I don’t have any idea where it is,” he said as he scanned a borrowed star map.
Meanwhile, his father, Larry, was marveling at a double star cluster in Cassiopeia. Since joining the society several years ago, the father and son have made numerous pilgrimages to see the skies, including a 17-day trip to Baja California in July with about 40 members who watched the solar eclipse.
Manufacturing foreman Gene Hanson attended one star party last winter when the temperature was 11 degrees. “Unless we’re snowed out,” said Hanson, “we’re always here.” His wife, Polly Kiner, talked poetically of the skies before there were cities.
“The night we stayed up for the Perseids, I didn’t go to sleep until 3 a.m.,” she said, referring to an August meteor shower in Perseus. “I just kept staring up.”
Peter Bodlaender, 53, a chemist who paid nearly $2,000 for his 10-inch reflector, compared operating it to learning a musical instrument. Even with elaborate star maps, he was unable to find the Dumbbell Nebula.
No matter. There would be time yet for a couple hours’ sleep in the car before he was at it again.
“I’ll set the alarm for 4:30,” he said. “Venus will come up at 4:35.”