Astronomy Domine

Last night I went out to the Dillingham Airfield after dark at the invitation of a friend in the Hawaiian Astronomical Society. When I arrived at the cluster of cars tucked in a corner of the airfield, a short downpour caused the gaggle of amateur astronomers to fling blue tarps over their equipment and dive for cover.

After a few minutes, the rain stopped and astronomers emerged to resume assembly of the telescope farm. It was only about 7 p.m. and the sky was still lighted. Clouds were blowing from east to west, alternately covering then revealing large tracts of open sky. The group members were mostly quiet, working on their equipment, chatting with each other at breaks, welcoming other club members as they arrived.

At 7:50 p.m., it was still somewhat lighted, but the entire group swung their telescopes to the south and began excitedly looking for the comet Tempel 1, the target of tonght”s “Deep Impact” by a NASA space probe. At tonight”s event at the Bishop Musem, this group of stargazers has volunteered to set up their telescopes and to host the pubilc in trying to view the impact.

After several minutes of searching, no one has found the comet yet, though several have exclaimed, “I think I see it! Is that it?” only to have their sighting discounted by senior club members. At around 8:10 p.m., club member Paul Lawler calls the others to his 12.5″ Litebox Dobsonian telescope. He has found the elusive smudge that all agree is the comet. “There is just no way we are going to find this at Bishop Museum,” bemoans one astronomer. “We”re not,” another states flatly. “I told them that, but we”re still going to set up at the museum.” I am told that the other name for amateur astronomer is “eternal optimist.”

The group shrugs and goes back to scanning the skies for more interesting subjects.

The reason I am out here at this remote corner of O’ahu on a Saturday night is that I mentioned in a passing email to Lawler, a longtime online acquaintance and colleague, that I was thinking about buying a telescope (a big one) and trying to photograph the heavens. Lawler had heard this one before!

Over the next couple of hours, I am treated to views of star clusters, nebulae, double stars, planets and galaxies. I see banded Jupiter with two moons, one of which is casting a shadow across the face of the planet. The sky tour is punctuated with interesting stories and tutorials by Lawler who says he has been at it for five years and wants to save me from making the same expensive mistakes that now crowd his closets at home.

I came away from the evening with a new appreciation of the hobby, the heavens and a clearer view of where I want to go with this newfound interest. I still want a big telescope. I want to view with my own eyes the images that appear in books, magazines and online. Looking through a telescope is like boarding a time machine and flying millions of years into the past, or future.

My parting comment to Lawler, after expressing my thanks, was, “I”m going to be sooooo broke!