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Aim Your Glass to the Skies

by Jeffrey B. Roth & photos by Turner Photography

TriState Astronomy Club

The TriState Astronomy Club engages the universe as far as their telescopes permit.

Contrary to a widely held but mistaken belief, Galileo Galilei did not invent the telescope. According to records, in 1609 the Italian scientist and inventor became the first person to train the newly invented optical instrument on the cosmos. Galileo, days after learning about the “Dutch perspective glasses,” built his own telescope without actually seeing the device.

Some 405 years after Galileo first discerned the craters and mountains of the moon, viewed sunspots on Earth's star, and observed several moons orbiting Jupiter, amateur astronomers — using telescopes hundreds of times more powerful and sophisticated than his — are still awed by the moon and planets of the solar system, says Steven F. Goldberg, chairman of the TriState Astronomers, based in Hagerstown. Founded in 1985, the club brings together about 60 amateur astronomers from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia to share their skills and knowledge to mentor each other and to educate the public about amateur astronomy.

“I had been interested in astronomy as a kid, largely due to the Apollo missions when I was growing up,” says Steven, a resident of Boonsboro, who works in the biomedical research industry. “I had a passing interest in telescopes as a teenager, but I never got serious about it. Then, five years ago, I came across the TriState Astronomers at one of their outreach events where they had a demonstration on solar observing.”

Within the next year, Steven purchased a telescope and joined the club, fulfilling his long-term fascination with astronomy. “The club’s focus tends to be on outreach and educational events,” Steven explains. “Last year we did outreach events — such as star parties — events at schools, and at community fairs and festivals.”

…the club brings together about 60 amateur astronomers from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia to share their skills and knowledge to mentor each other and to educate the public about amateur astronomy…

Star parties held at Antietam National Battlefield in April and October each year feature about 20 members with telescopes, which are trained on popular celestial viewing objects — primarily the moon and planets. This allows the 500 or more visitors to experience the thrill of seeing the rings of Saturn or the Great Red Spot of Jupiter live, up close, and personal, Steven says.

Despite a semi-cloudy sky and chilly temperatures at the star party this past October at Antietam, more than 100 guests attended, including a number of Cub Scouts and Webelos from area packs who were working on astronomy programs, along with their chaperones. While the conditions made viewing planets nearly impossible, telescopes were trained on the brightest object in the sky — a nearly full moon.

While setting up an 8-inch computerized Orion reflector telescope, David Fox, a Frederick-area resident, says he has been a member of the organization for a couple of years. A software engineer, he says astronomy has been one of his interests for as long as he can remember. “I never really thought about getting a telescope until I came to a couple of events,” says David, who enjoys viewing Saturn, Jupiter and the Andromeda Galaxy — a spiral galaxy, which is the nearest neighbor to the Milk Way. “One day, I said, ’Know what? I want to see Jupiter. I want to see Saturn. I want to see all this stuff.’”

Many TriState members are software and information technology specialists or are involved in other scientific professions. James Ashworth, an IT specialist who resides in Hagerstown, has been an amateur astronomer for about seven years. He brought his 10-inch Dobsonian — a Newtonian-style reflector telescope — to the star party. “All of my life, I’ve always looked at the sky,” he says. “I started using a teeny-weeny telescope, but I couldn't see the stuff I wanted to see. I started coming to events to learn what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong.”

James is typical of many club members who say their first telescope was a cheap one like those sold by major retail stores. Unfortunately, those scopes are mounted on less than stable tripods and offer limited magnification. Combined, those challenges can cause frustration for beginners and result in a loss of interest in the hobby. As part of its educational mission, the TriState website includes advice to beginners on how to choose a telescope.

Sharpsburg resident Mike Sager, a club member for nine years, brought an 8-inch Meade LX 90 telescope to the party, which was a 2005 Christmas gift to the party. The first thing Mike realized after receiving the gift was that he needed to learn how to use it properly. Not long after Mike attended a TriState outreach event, he became a member to learn how to use his scope. Members of the club, he says, represent a range of skill levels using telescopes — from novice to expert. “Everyone is friendly and is happy to show you how to use a scope,” Mike says. “I used to be the outreach coordinator for the club and we did 30–40 events a year. This is one of our largest.”

George Michael of Williamsport, executive pastor at the Independent Bible Church in Martinsburg, W.Va., and a TSA member for 15 years, demonstrated on a club-owned 8-inch Celestron, how different telescope eyepieces can be used to zoom in on an object or used to view a wide-angle of the night sky. In his youth, George’s aunt would take him out at night to learn the names of constellations and other objects. “Before I became a pastor, I taught earth sciences for 20 years, which included an astronomy unit for eighth and ninth graders,” George says. “I really had to learn the sky, and the stars, and the constellations. Each time we had a month of class work on astronomy, I would take the students out at night for a star party like this.”

Kay Papeskov, of Hagerstown, who is a driving instructor, has been a club member for about three years. Another club member with a lifelong interest in astronomy, she created a Kids Zone outreach program for children. Rather than warning young children not to touch the equipment, Kay encourages children by using a hands-on approach. Boonsboro residents Melanie and John Stuart, along with their son, Ryan, 9, each took a turn observing the moon under the guidance of Kay. “We’re here so Ryan can earn his Astronomy belt loop,” John says. “He’s with Webelos Pack 20, Boonsboro.”

Outreach coordinator Dan Kaminsky, of Hagerstown, who was recognized with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's Las Cumbres Amateur Outreach Award in 2014, says he’s been a member of TriState for about 12 years. “This is an eight-inch reflector,” Dan, says. “It's called a Starliner which isn't made anymore. It used to belong to my father Wadim, who lives in Florida. He was into science. He was too old to be getting the scope out so he gave it to me.”

TriState is affiliated with the Astronomical League and Night Sky Network, Dan says. In a typical year, the outreach program reaches 5,000 kids and adults. “Several of our members are active, quite talented, astrophotographers,” Dan says. “We also provide laser-guided sky tours and activities to help kids learn about the night sky. You'll likely see a couple of home-made telescopes here, too.”

Dan focused the telescope on the moon and made some minor adjustments to the scope, providing 9-year-old Connor McNamara of Boonsboro a perfect view — revealing the cratered surface that is lost on the naked eye beneath the celestial body’s pale glow.

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