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Star Search : Astronomy: The clear view from 8,200-foot Mt. Pinos lures hundreds who gaze skyward.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Beyond the big-city lights, the stars stand out in the darkened sky, the smoke-like expanse of the Milky Way emerges, and you can imagine what it must be like up there in the heavens.

As many as 250 amateur astronomers go to the top of Mt. Pinos near Frazier Park on moonless nights for ideal stargazing. Most go for other reasons as well, like the magic of capturing a planet, or a star, or some whole galaxy, in the lens of their telescope.

“We’re seeing things in the universe that the average man never sees,” Amos Almeida, a 50-year-old Moorpark truck driver, said one recent Saturday night.

“When you look at galaxies, you see billions of stars millions of light-years away,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that God didn’t just create all that for us humans. When I’m looking out there, I’m imagining someone else looking back.”

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At 8,200 feet, the packed parking lot where Almeida set up his telescope is considered one of the best places in Southern California for stargazing. Amateur astronomers have been using the site for more than 30 years.

Far beyond the light pollution that can take the luster off the night sky, astronomers such as Almeida can set up their telescopes and--barring cloud cover--be guaranteed ideal conditions.

“I’m up here almost every weekend there’s not a moon,” said Almeida, who spent close to $10,000 on a new 10-foot-tall telescope with a 25-inch refractor.

After spending so much on telescopes, the die-hards who come here spend countless hours searching for obscure clusters of stars or glowing wafts of hydrogen gas clouds called nebulae, where stars are born.

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Dressed warmly for the crisp evening, Harvey Freed, a 53-year-old dentist from Los Angeles, kneels before his telescope, programming a small computer to track a star in the sky. He is one of several dozen amateur astrophotographers setting up cameras mounted on telescopes to take pictures of galaxies and nebulae trillions of miles away.

Because the light from these distant celestial bodies is so faint, a typical photograph can take up to three hours to make. The computer that Freed is programming will track the star and, accounting for the Earth’s rotation, keep the camera focused on the image as the film is exposed.

The irony of his meticulous work is that Freed spends more time looking down at his machine than looking up at the stars. But it is his fascination with those stars that keeps him tinkering.

“I like to shoot galaxies and planetary nebulae that are so far away you can hardly imagine,” he said. “To think we can capture them in the camera is amazing. For me, it’s like hunting. Our pictures are our trophies.”

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If there is one thing that astronomers such as Freed want to share, it is their fascination with the universe. Almost like carnival barkers, they stand next to their telescopes and offer the uninitiated a chance to see the stars up close.

Philo Jewett, 40, of Studio City swings his telescope around, picking out what might interest a beginner. He points the telescope up to Jupiter, tells a stranger about the impacts of meteors from the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, whose effects are still visible, and reminds them to look for Jupiter’s moons.

A photographer by trade, Jewett spends many nights on the streets of Studio City with his telescope, offering views of the moon or planets for $1 to passersby.

“I’m a sidewalk astronomer,” he said. “I read once in a science magazine that one person out of 100 has never looked through a telescope. I think that gave me a mission in life.”

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He once let a 75-year-old woman gaze at Saturn and its rings. “She said, ‘There really are rings!’ Imagine that, she was surprised to really see rings on Saturn,” Jewett said.

Not far from Jewett, young people lined up at Almeida’s telescope, hoping to get a glimpse of the Ring Nebula, which looks much like a perfect smoke ring.

Terry Murphy, a 37-year-old friend of Almeida who lives in Thousand Oaks and works as an engineer for Rocketdyne, explained why he tries to encourage people to take a look.

“The first time I looked through a telescope, I was 9. It was a darkened night and I saw Jupiter. It changed my life,” he said.

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After studying astrophysics and engineering in college, he ended up working on rockets used in the space shuttle.

“When I see a novice catch a glimpse for the first time, it’s like I’m reliving that experience,” he said. “Maybe it will change their lives.”

Hal Jandorf, 45, who teaches astronomy at Moorpark College, agreed.

“It’s why I teach,” he said. “It’s incredible to see someone get caught up in the magic of seeing stars.”

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Jandorf was conducting an introductory course for a group from the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

After a short orientation, he led them down the mountain a few hundred yards from the light-sensitive telescopes, then flicked on a large flashlight to point out the constellations.

With his flashlight beam, Jandorf connected the dots that form Scorpio and Sagittarius. As the constellations seemed to jump out from the star-speckled sky, the group oohed and ahhed.

“You can see why it’s so addicting,” said Karen Veronico, 56, of West Los Angeles, who was wearing a “University of Mars” T-shirt and tilting her head skyward.

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Veronico and her husband have already bought a $2,500 telescope. She said they liked the camaraderie among the astronomers on Mt. Pinos and would return.

“There aren’t any astronomy snobs up here,” she said. “Everybody is willing to let you look through their telescopes and explain what you’re seeing.”

Except for angry yells when someone drives into the parking lot with headlights on--which can destroy hours of work by the astrophotographers--the astronomers welcome strangers.

Among the cars and camper vans pasted with bumper stickers--reading “Astronomy is looking up” and “Let the stars get in your eyes"--people gathered in small groups to talk. Someone played the theme to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Two college students from Los Angeles laid out beanbag chairs next to their car and leaned back to look at the sky.

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The atmosphere is something akin to a huge cocktail party. The group around Almeida’s telescope grew a little bit larger. Sensing the wait he faced, one young man started to leave.

“Wait a minute,” Almeida said. “You’re gonna want to look at this. This is something you’ve never seen before.”


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