Originally created 02/26/97

The sky's alive



Your journey through the sky can begin with a chaise lounge and a chart of the stars.

Just sit in your backyard, look up and figure out where everything is. If you're still interested, get a pair of binoculars and a camera tripod to hold it steady. This will enable you to see all the planets except Pluto, and, for those who are counting, about a half-million stars.

Then, if you're still interested, you can lay down the money for a telescope, which many people mistakenly think is the first step for getting involved in astronomy. And you can see more than you could ever catalog.

These are the recommendations made by members of the Astronomy Club of Augusta, who also recommend joining their group. With other people to help out and share equipment, you'll learn more quickly and have more fun, they say.

Interest in astronomy should rise this spring with the passing of Hale-Bopp. It is already visible in the morning sky and is expected to be at its brightest in March and April. You can view it with the naked eye.

Last year comet Hyakutake left a trail across one-third of the night sky, and this comet could be brighter.

But such moments, while exciting, are mere tourist spots for dedicated amateur astronomers. These people look at the sky every week, and there's always something going on. They set up in their backyards, or seek the darker skies away from the light of civilization. Jerome Liverett, a trucker from Grovetown, travels with his binoculars and will sometimes pull over to set up on a particularly dark roadside.

The club regularly gets together at a remote, utterly dark site on Fort Gordon. Once, said club member John White, a woman who came there was so moved by the richness of the full night sky and its countless stars she began to cry.

That fantastic sense of the vastness of space, of seeing places billions of miles away, is much of astronomy's appeal.

You can see amazing things with a telescope, as was demonstrated recently at one of the "star parties" the astronomy club puts on for area schools. Club members go to a schoolyard at night, set up their telescopes and train them on a celestial body. Children and parents can look through and see, for example, the many pock marks and craters on a moon that looks smooth to the naked eye.

At a recent star party at Belair Elementary School, club member Tom Webb trained his telescope on the Orion nebula. Invisible to the naked eye, the nebula is a clearly defined cloud located just below the "belt" in the constellation named after Orion the Hunter. Within the cloud Mr. Webb pointed out four bright points of light, stars being born in the nebula. The stars are about 100,000 years old, which, relative to the 5-billion-year-old sun, makes them astronomical babies.

Mr. Webb began to describe astronomy as an escape from reality, and but then clarified himself to say it makes you appreciate another reality, one where 100,000 years is a short time.

"It kind of makes you realize a lot of what we're doing here is trivial," he said.

People get interested astronomy in different ways. Mr. White, a registered nurse and retired U.S. Army major, had his interest stoked by the beginnings of the space program. Mr. Liverett became interested in 1992, after attending a science fair at Fort Gordon. Their equipment can cost a few hundred dollars or several thousand dollars.

Mr. Webb began with astronomy at a young age. When he was 8, he made a telescope from paper-towel tubes and a lens. At 16, he got a job flipping hamburgers and used his earnings to buy a telescope. He's been upgrading every eight years since then. At 40, Mr. Webb, a nuclear engineer for Georgia Power's Plant Vogtle in Burke County, built his own telescope. This one is so big he needs a ladder to look through the viewfinder. He said every time he upgrades, it's like starting over again, because he can see so much more.

Aside from the awe of space, another appeal of astronomy is it gets you outdoors and away from the city lights. Mr. Webb made an analogy to birdwatching or butterfly collecting.

You're just looking at another part of nature, an especially vast part.

As Mr. Liverett said, "You really don't know how much is up there until you look."

Learn more

If you're interested in joining the Astronomy Club of Augusta, call president Bill Dunwoody, at 863-6786 or e-mail him at manofbrz@csra.net. The club also has a Web site, though not terribly up-to-date.

Or just show up at one of their meetings, which take place the fourth Friday of each month at room A-4 of Skinner Hall at Augusta State University. Annual dues are $18.

If you want some local guidance or company in viewing the comet Hale-Bopp, the club is planning a public viewing on April 18 or 19 at an as-yet-undetermined site. Call for information.If you want to learn astronomy on your own:

The club recommends beginning by using star charts to learn the night sky. A star wheel that rotates to show the sky at different times of the year is available by sending $6 to Sky Publishing Corp, Box 9111, Belmont, Mass. 02178. The Augusta State bookstore sells star charts. Monthly charts are included in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines, and on those magazines' Web sites.

After charts, the next step is binoculars, a decent pair of which can be had for $99 or less. A tripod will help hold it steady.

If you want to get a telescope, the club recommends avoiding cheap department store models. Be prepared to spend more than $300. The club recommends writing Orion Telescopes, Box 1158, Santa Cruz, Calif., for a catalog.