January 5, 2005

Stargazing Has Magical Pull on Many

TUCSON (AP) -- When you look at a photograph of the night sky, do you see just a bunch of white dots on a black background? Does looking up into a starry night make you think of Star Wars, with beings from other galaxies flying around at the speed of light, shooting at one another?

People can look up at the stars all their lives and never really be sure what's out there.

"Back in 1949 when I was a kid, I made a 2-inch telescope," Andy Keefer says, referring to the diameter of the telescope lens. "I built it from a kit, and once I looked at the moon through it, nothing could stop me."

Keefer didn't grow up to be an astronomer, but he has been an amateur astronomer his entire life "” first in Pennsylvania and now in Tucson, where he joined the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association in 1971.

"I have a 6-inch Criterion Dynascope I bought used in the late 1950s. They don't make them anymore, but it is an excellent telescope," he says. "Back in 1971 and 1973, when Mars was so close to Earth, I saw the polar ice cap on Mars disappear just the way Percival Lowell had described it a century earlier."

More recently, he was hanging around the three telescopes Flandrau Science Center volunteers had set up to do some star gazing behind Corbett Elementary School. The volunteers were there at the invitation of the Corbett Elementary School Home Owners Association. The association, in turn, had invited a Girl Scout troop that meets regularly at Corbett school.

Astronomy is one science that loves its amateurs. You can pick up any astronomy book and someplace in there it will say today's amateur astronomers make many valuable contributions to the scientific study of the universe. One major reason is that the professional astronomers put most of their emphasis on using a handful of extremely powerful instruments to explore the outer reaches of space.

Being able to see far enough into space to catch a glimpse of light from the theoretical Big Bang would prove that first explosion which set the entire universe in motion was more than a theory.

Meanwhile the world's amateurs with their own telescopes turn a keen eye on celestial objects closer to home, discovering uncharted comets and the like. For the price of a nice automobile, anyone can buy a world-class telescope. Maybe that's why so many amateur astronomers ride bicycles.

"We have the only free telescope for continuous public viewing in the state of Arizona," says Michael Terenzoni, astronomy coordinator for the Flandrau Science Center at the University of Arizona. "It's available every Wednesday through Saturday from 7 to 10 p.m."

That's when volunteer amateur astronomers and UA astronomy students are on hand to point the telescope's 16-inch lens at the most photogenic objects over Tucson that particular night.

One of the most knowledgeable of these volunteers is Demosthenes Galanos, a retired military officer and aerospace engineer.

"There's plenty up there to keep the public jazzed," says Galanos, whose enthusiasm and theatrical storytelling skills are irresistible.

That was the case for the 20 or so Girl Scouts who came to look at stars.

"I like to see the stars twinkling," says Brooke Cameron, 11, who was disappointed to learn Saturn wouldn't be above the horizon until after 10 p.m. But she was happy to look through all three telescopes.

"Once I went to Kitt Peak and saw sun spots on the sun," says Kelsey Horton, 10, also eager to see as far into space as possible.