It's pitch dark and Stephen Edberg can barely make out who is who among the dozen guests he has assembled at his personal observatory in Lockwood Valley, just north of Frazier Park.
But this lesson requires only the light of the stars, which radiate above, unmolested by city lights, like a billion pinholes in the black sky. Slowly, with Edberg's guidance, the constellations take shape — Draco the Dragon, Corona Borealis and Lyra. Then it is on to the Messier Objects, nebulae and star clusters catalogued by 18th Century French astronomer Charles Messier. And finally, the planets.
"If you look carefully at Jupiter now, you can see all four of its moons," Edberg, 57, told his guests.
The La Cañada resident and Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer has maintained his observatory, which is equipped with a retractable roof and a 14-inch telescope, since 1993 when he and eight like-minded friends bought a 5-acre plot of undeveloped land to use for star gazing. He visits whenever there is any significant terrestrial event, and is occasionally joined by colleagues or friends.
On this particular night, Edberg's guests include La Cañada High School science teacher Tom Traeger and a handful of recent LCHS graduates.
"You point your telescope to one section of sky, and you see the same amount of stars in one view that you are seeing in the whole sky, and it is just mind blowing," Traeger, himself an amateur astronomer, said.
One by one, heads pop up through the open roof of the observatory as the stargazers climb up a stepladder to reach the eyepiece of the telescope. They pepper Edberg with questions about the age and size of each object in the sky. And they ooh and ah when he points out what he refers to as the UCLA stars, Albireo A and Albireo B, a pair of stars in the Cygnus constellation that burn yellowish and bluish, respectively, mimicking the university's colors.
"I think I like teaching students [about astronomy] because it kind of reconnects them with how humans used to be," Traeger said. "We used to be able to see a sky, and now, you look up into the sky in LA [at night] and you don't see a thing. People don't have that connectedness any more with the sky."
Edberg's life-long passion for astronomy began when he was still a toddler. His father, an engineer working in the aerospace industry, took the family on science-minded outings, and there is a photograph of a 14-month-old Edberg at the 200-inch telescope at the famed Palomar Observatory in San Diego County.
He got his first telescope in 1960, and then a second in 1965. A year later he procured a third telescope, which he still uses to study the stars from his backyard in La Cañada.
"By then, my fate was sealed," Edberg said.
He went on to study physics at UC Santa Cruz, and then astronomy at UC San Diego and UCLA. Edberg worked at the San Fernando Observatory before landing at JPL, where he has remained for the last 31 years. His most recent responsibilities include managing an interface for the SIM Lite project, a spacecraft that is intended to discover Earth-like planets around nearby stars.
"It grabbed me and has held me for most of my life," Edberg said of astronomy. "I cannot tell you any one thing, or any multiple of things, that attracts me, but it just developed and has stayed all this time."
Highlights during a lifetime of studying the stars included spotting in 1975 Nova Cygni (now known as V1500 Cygni), one of the brightest exploding stars seen in many decades, and Supernova 1987 A, the first Supernova visible to the naked eye since the 17th century, as well as seeing multiple impacts on the planet Jupiter, Edberg said.
"It has really been wonderful to have had these multiple opportunities, and then of course there is the whole business of the space age," Edberg said. "I grew up with that too. It has just been a wonderful time to have lived."