On one hand, anybody can become a stargazer for the cost of a pair of binoculars.
Then there are people like Noel Keyes.
The Corona del Mar resident laid a concrete foundation to steady his high-powered telescope, built a canvas dome around it and added a star-mapping computer. On a good night, he can peek halfway across the Milky Way from his home observatory.
Keyes readily acknowledges that some find his attraction to astronomy a bit extreme.
“I guess you have to have both imagination and insanity,” he said. “But when you see individual stars millions of light years away, that’s a beautiful sight. That makes it all worth it.”
For most observers of heavenly bodies, serious stargazing is not done in back-yard observatories but in remote outdoor venues, where the clear skies of summer make searching space an especially popular recreation this time of year.
Astronomy is largely an outdoor activity--the more outdoor, the better. Light pollution from cities is astronomy’s greatest foe, so stargazers are fond of road trips to dark, secluded wilderness locations.
“We often just like to go out for the fresh air,” said John Sanford, a past president of Orange County Astronomers. “It’s a relaxing hobby like fly-fishing, a chance to go out and enjoy the universe.”
The 615-member club owns a 20-acre retreat in the desert near Anza, where members take weekend jaunts and sleep under the stars after observing them.
Closer to home, the group leases a hilltop in Silverado Canyon, where they hold monthly star parties--a chance for members to compare discoveries, brag about their equipment or just lounge back and contemplate the heavens.
Equipment setup starts just before sunset. After the sun drops below the horizon, a strict lights-out is imposed to protect astrophotographers doing time exposures.
Several concrete posts are set into the ground to provide a steady foundation for the telescopes. Like needles in a pincushion, they point to the sky. Some are eight to 10 inches long, others are large enough to be carried in the backs of pickup trucks.
About 11:30 p.m., they take a break to let some turn on their headlights and leave. The rest stay until the sun creeps over the skyline.
But the astronomy club isn’t the only source for getting in touch with the stars.
In South County, the Rancho Mission Viejo Land Conservancy, a 1,200-acre wilderness preserve several miles east of San Juan Capistrano, holds Astronomy Night for anyone interested in space.
“We get anywhere from 10 to 60 people,” said Daniel Manrique, who organizes the star watch. “There are a lot of first-timers, people who have never looked into a telescope.
“They come from all walks of life, but one thing the same about them, they all are really stunned by the immense size of the universe. They look into a telescope and are amazed.”
As for those already involved in astronomy, Sanford estimates about 70% of club members are beginners. The general profile of an Orange County Astronomer member: male, middle to upper class.
Summer is a good time to get involved with astronomy, said Nick Patel, manager of Scope City in Costa Mesa.
“The summer is nicer when the kids get out of school and the whole family winds up involved,” said Patel. “Plus, the skies are clearer, and the weather is just nicer.”
Patel gets mostly beginners coming into his store. He and other astronomy experts advise novices to start small.
“You can start out with your naked eye or a pair of binoculars,” said Manrique.
Beginners’ telescopes run from $150 to $500 with advanced models costing $20,000 or more. The major consideration when buying telescopes is to know that bigger isn’t better.
“It’s not about magnification, but [the telescope’s] ability to gather light,” said Manrique.
Refracting telescopes, which use lenses to collect light, make good starting equipment. Better are reflecting telescopes, which use mirrors.
But whatever equipment is used, stargazers say the rewards of astronomy are great.
First, there is the fascination of discovering the vast universe.
“It’s an exotic kind of thing, like skin diving,” said Sanford, who has traveled from Bolivia to Indonesia to witness solar eclipses. “You see strange, wonderful things that most people never get to experience in their lives.”
Among Sanford’s memories:
“I remember one particularly fantastic comet,” he said. “It was spectacular. It was so long you could see the tail, all blue and yellow, before the comet even got over the horizon.”
Then, there are his solar eclipse adventures.
“It’s a very emotional experience,” said Sanford. “Sunlight gets weaker and weaker in the last few minutes, then you look up and there’s a huge black hole in the sky, the moon against the sun like there’s space inside there.”
Astronomy lends itself to long, philosophical discussions.
“Everybody has that inner desire to know exactly where we came from,” said Manrique. “We are built of the materials that stars are made of. By observing the universe, we are looking at the source of our creation.”
But most of all, experienced stargazers urge anyone getting involved in astronomy to get their telescope out of the back yard.
That’s because possibly the best way to enjoy astronomy is with someone else, whether it be with a club, on a field trip or at a facility like the Tessmann Planetarium at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana.
“It’s great to show somebody something new, that they’ve never seen before,” said Manrique. “In business, people are always trying to cover up proprietary secrets. But more than any other discipline, astronomy is the science of sharing.”