They need their space

RAYTOWN, Ga. - At the newest subdivision in Taliaferro County, you can stay up as late as you want. Just don't turn on the lights.

"We like our darkness," said Chris Hetlage, the developer of an unusual village taking shape on a hilltop 50 miles west of Augusta. "That's really why we're here."

Georgia's least populous county leads the region in a tourist commodity that is as rare as it is unusual: darkness.

That's how Mr. Hetlage and fellow stargazers from Atlanta ended up creating Deerlick Astronomy Village, a secluded subdivision of high-tech, private observatories sprouting from 96 acres.

"About half of us, like me, are astrophotographers," he said. "The rest are just visual people having fun. It's kind of like a weekend getaway."

Mr. Hetlage, an electronic medical records executive from Norcross, needed a place to pursue his hobby that was outside metro Atlanta, where "light pollution" has extinguished any opportunity to observe the stars.

"We had zeroed in on Hancock and Taliaferro counties," he said. "One day we're riding around out here and came across this historical marker. When we stopped to read it, we knew this was the place, and the rest is history."

The bronze plaque marks the location of the Revolutionary War era plantation of Aaron Grier, whose son, Robert Grier, was a noted amateur astronomer who founded Grier's Almanac in 1807.

"The remarkable astronomical calculations which led to the publishing of the almanac were made on the large boulders in the fields near this road," the marker says.

"We liked the site for its location and its history," Mr. Hetlage said. "It was perfect."

Once purchased, the site was cleared, a 10-acre hilltop was dubbed Grier's Field, and land was set aside in perpetuity for stargazing festivals and periodic use by members and visitors.

Beyond a steel gate decorated with a three-foot star, some of the Deerlick Village property owners are building weekend cabins. Others have campers or just a small observatory housed in a wooden building with a retractable roof that slides away to allow telescopes to point skyward.

"The buildings are remarkable, really," Mr. Hetlage said. "It amazes me that you can have a building that won't fall down when you slide the roof off of it."

Stargazing technology, he said, has advanced far beyond removable roofs.

"If you want, you can control everything through the Internet," he said. "I travel for business, and I can do this from anywhere - an airport in Philadelphia or even in London, England."

With the click of a mouse, Mr. Hetlage can roll back the roof of his observatory and use robotic arms and digital technology to aim his telescope and its camera at any target in the heavens.

Sometimes he peers into the Andromeda galaxy a million light-years away, or searches for the wispy, foglike gases of the Orion nebula.

"The nebulas are beautiful; they're stars just being born or those that have exploded in supernova. Sometimes it's just gas that's left from an exploding star," Mr. Hetlage said.

The telescope, kept in a climate-controlled room, is mounted on a four-foot cube of concrete and steel that provides stability.

"Keep in mind that sometimes you're taking a picture of an object that's 100 million light-years away, and doing it over an eight-hour exposure, and the Earth's moving the whole time," he said. "Even with all that, it's accurate to within 9 millionths of an inch."

The slightest vibration or error, he said, will yield a blurred image. But patience; a perfect, dark night; and a little luck will offer a lucky stargazer photographs of unbelievable resolution and beauty.

"Five years ago, this technology did not exist," he said. "I call it extreme photography. This is about as extreme as it gets."

Mr. Hetlage isn't alone in his love for the night skies.

"There's a lot more people in this hobby now, and it's really growing," said Peter Macumber, the president of the Atlanta Astronomy Club, a 300-person group founded in 1947.

The club is midway through developing its own observatory in one corner of Grier's Field.

"We're calling it sort of a clubhouse for now," he said. "People can come out for a night or weekend and not have to drive home at 4 in the morning."

Mr. Macumber, a computer programmer from Austell, said the club's observatory will include one of the largest telescopes in the region.

"When we get it in here, it will be as tall as the power lines," he said. "You'll have to climb a ladder just to look through it."

The Atlanta Astronomy Club plans to hold its annual Peach State Star Gaze festival at Deerlick Village for the next decade. This year's dates are Oct. 7-14.

"If the weather's right, this place will fill up fast," he promised.

Grier's Field, Mr. Hetlage noted, is wired for electricity, with outlets on almost every split rail fence post.

"Some of this equipment demands a lot of power," he said. "So they wired it up with 800 amps. That's more than most factories."

The village is growing steadily, with nine observatories and several cabins already completed. More are under construction, and eventually the site will include 26 lots averaging two acres apiece. About half the lots - priced at around $30,000 each - already are sold.

Mr. Hetlage said the village also offers long-term leases on smaller observatory sites, and a $35 annual membership fee includes use of Grier's Field and other facilities, such as walking trails and a pond.

"We plan to be here for a long time," he said. "But we do believe that light pollution is our biggest challenge. The East Coast is very saturated. It's very difficult to find places that are dark enough - and to keep them that way."

Even in tiny Taliaferro County, the prospect of more development - and bright lights - is still a reality. The Deerlick group has even proposed a "dark sky ordinance" to the three-person county commission in hopes of encouraging policies that will preserve one of the last remaining dark skies in the East.

"We think if we educate people on why this is so important, it will work out," Mr. Hetlage said, noting that millions of metro Atlanta residents have never had the opportunity to look up and see, for instance, the Milky Way.

"The Milky Way has 300 billion stars, and it's just one of billions of galaxies," Mr. Hetlage said. "This stuff is all up there for everyone to see. But because of light pollution, it's just harder to see from most places."

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.