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A Hubble in Your Backyard: Amateur Astronomers Enjoy Southern Arizona’s Night Skies

Darlene Sims examines Curt Hughes' telescope

Darlene Sims examines Curt Hughes’ telescope. Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg

A Hubble in Your Backyard

By Susan E. Swanberg

More than half of the world’s telescopes are located within a 150-mile radius of Tucson, Ariz., according to astronomy buff, Chuck Harrell. While it’s hard to prove this statement, there are many astronomy fans in Tucson.

If you received a telescope as a gift recently, but don’t know how to use it, don’t despair. From Sierra Vista to Green Valley to Tucson, professional and amateur astronomers are ready and willing to help get you started. Even if you don’t own a telescope, you’re encouraged to join the fun.

 Starry Nights at Starizona

Harrell works at Starizona, a Tucson establishment that sells telescopes, designs and sells specialized astrophotography equipment and hosts star parties. Every Friday and Saturday night, barring inclement weather, amateur astronomers assemble in the parking lot at 5757 N. Oracle Road to stargaze and experiment with astrophotography. Novices are welcome.

On a clear, cold Friday night early in January of 2014, a throng of enthusiasts gathered in a small cordoned-off area of the parking lot to set up their telescopes. Southern Arizona is known for its dark skies, but there on Oracle Road, not far from the Tucson Mall, some light is inescapable.

What the parking lot lacked in dark skies, however, was more than made up for by the excitement generated as an assortment of telescopes, many looking like the “Star Wars” character “R2-D2” on stilts, were assembled shortly before dusk.

Curt Hughes with his telescope

Curt Hughes with his telescope. Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg

Automated or computerized telescopes, with internal global positioning systems, were among the favorites. Using a hand control, the user points or “slews” an automated telescope to three bright celestial objects. The telescope’s internal software models the night sky based upon the locations of the three objects.

Once aligned, the operator can direct an automated telescope to tens of thousands of named objects, including stars, planets and nebulae. Many automated telescopes include a database of information describing each celestial object, and some newer telescopes can even do the alignment for you.

 Be Careful, or You’ll Get Hooked

On this particular night at Starizona, there were at least six automated Celestron® telescopes, but several stargazers have more traditional-looking telescopes. Darleen Sims and her husband own a Dobsonian telescope. With its simple design, ability to magnify objects in deep space and its affordability the “Dob” is a popular telescope for visual observing, but not for astrophotography.

Once hooked on stargazing, however, the desire to upgrade to a larger, more versatile telescope can be irresistible. On the way home from a recent trip to Kitt Peak National Observatory southwest of Tucson, Sim’s husband said, “Let’s stop at Starizona.” The next thing she knew, they’d ordered another telescope. “Now we’re here buying a big boy. An 11-inch Celestron®,” she said. They also bought astrophotography equipment to go with it.

Mentoring the Uninitiated

During a typical viewing session at Starizona, curious spectators drop by either because they know an event is scheduled, or because they wonder why a crowd is gathering in the tiny parking lot.

Dean Koenig, Starizona’s owner, is a fervent stargazing mentor who never seems to tire of sharing his knowledge. Several years ago, Koenig brought two Celestron® telescopes to Washington, D.C. where he shared the secrets of deep space with 150 middle school students on the White House lawn.

Amateur astronomer and Starizona regular, Gene Dickens, said that as a child he saw sputnick pass overhead. “I’m glad I was able to make it until we became an interstellar-faring race, and I hope I live until we get photos back from Pluto.”

Dickens named some of the celestial objects he finds interesting: the Owl Cluster, (also known as ET) in the constellation Cassiopeia, Stickman (a cluster of galaxies in the constellation Como) and the Dragonfly Nebula. His favorite celestial bodies are of the planetary variety. “Saturn takes the cake,” said Dickens, “Jupiter is probably second.” Jupiter and four of its moons, lined up almost perfectly, were visible through Dickens’ telescope.

Koenig and his staff roam the parking lot on viewing nights, offering advice to novices and tips to more experienced amateurs. Annetta Glowacki, watching her husband, Mike, test astrophotography software, called Koenig “a master at multitasking.” Mike Glowacki is working on an image of the Andromeda Galaxy, a spiral galaxy located 2.5 million light years away from Earth.

By 7:00 pm there were six “R2-D2s” ranging in size from six to eleven inches, and one Orion® refracting telescope assembled and ready to go. Soon the lights in the nearby Sherwin-Williams Paints store went dark, and the crowd of 16 amateur astronomers and assorted curious onlookers, cheered.

Mike Glowacki assembles his telescope

Mike Glowacki assembles his telescope and astrophotography equipment. Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg

 A Hubble in Your Backyard

Several of the astronomers had specialized lenses and cameras attached to their telescopes to capture images of faint objects in deep space. The lenses, all versions of the HyperStar, designed and patented by Koenig, can be paired with a light-sensitive camera and specialized computer software to photograph images of deep-sky objects like the Pacman or Flame nebulae.

“It’s astounding,” said stargazer Neil Zaborowski, as he watched Curt Hughes begin an astrophotography session, “every man has a ‘Hubble’ in his backyard now. This guy knocks off beautiful photos in a couple of minutes.”

Hughes positioned his telescope to take 10 exposures of a nebula, each exposure180 seconds long. He wouldn’t know whether the project was successful for about thirty minutes. “This is the longest exposure I’ve ever done,” he said.

At 7:45 the group buzzed with talk of Messier objects, nebulae and star clusters. In the background motorized drives on automated telescopes hummed as the astronomers triangulated their way to a guided view of the universe.

Finished with his astrophotography session, Hughes can’t figure out where the computer stored his images. “They’re lost in space,” says Zaborowski, who’s been keeping track of Hughes’ project.

Discover Your Inner Astronomer

In addition to Starizona, Southern Arizona is home to other astronomy groups willing to help beginners. Huachuca Astronomy Club (HUC), member Glen Sanner, says HUC, located in Sierra Vista, Ariz., is a very active club that has been around a long time. Its members include people just getting started and seasoned observers with their own backyard observatories.

“We probably have the greatest assortment of telescopes of any club around,” says Sanner, “from large to small to automated or nonautomated.”

Sonora Astronomical Society (SAS), in Green Valley, Ariz., provides astronomy education and fellowship with other amateur astronomers. According to its website, SAS sponsors frequent star parties where amateur astronomers provide telescopes for public viewing of the skies.

The Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association is another resource for amateur astronomers. “From beginner to professional astronomer, with a telescope or without one, we invite you to join us,” says the club’s website.

What’s Lost is Found

By 8:45 there were twenty-four people in the Starizona parking lot sharing astronomy and friendship under the stars. The lost computer files found, Hughes commanded the computer to stack the ten images. Soon a composite image emerged on his computer screen.

Within a field of stars is a hazy-looking orange ball with what looks like an open mouth. Several stars lie within the gaping grin. “Pacman,” Hughes says. Having found his files, and assembled a credible image, Hughes is ready to move on. “Now I’m going to try the Flame Nebula,” he says.

© 2014 by Susan E. Swanberg

A version of this story was reviously published in the Green Valley News, Green Valley, Arizona.