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Observatories, gatherings welcome amateur astronomers

Rex Rutkoski
| Saturday, June 6, 2015 8:12 p.m
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Steven Adams | Tribune-Review
Tours of the historic Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh's Riverview Park will be part of Riverview Park Heritage Day on June 9.
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Dan Speicher | For Trib Total Media
Bill Yorkshire of Plum, an associate director of the Wagman Observatory in West Deer, looks through the Brashear 11-inch Refractor telescope on Monday, July 21, 2014, in the Wagman Observatory in West Deer.
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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Bill Roemer of South Fayette Township gives a talk about star families on Friday, July 19, 2014, during the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh's public star party at Mingo Creek Park Observatory in Washington County.
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Valley News Dispatch
Dennis Hill, a member of Kiski Astronomers, during a stargazing party at Kunkle Park in Washington Township. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
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Potter County Visitors Association
One of the telescopes used at the Cherry Springs State Park star party in Potter County
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Curt Weinhold
The Milky Way Galaxy as seen at a Cherry Springs State Park star party
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Potter County Visitors Association
A photo taken during a Black Forest Star Party at Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County.

Visitors shouldn’t be surprised if they are offered duct tape when touring the University of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park.

Guides like to joke that they may need it because “looking at Jupiter through our 13-inch refracting telescope will surely knock your socks off.”

As long as someone can look through the eyepiece of a telescope, they can enjoy the thrill of seeing the rings of Saturn, moons of Jupiter and “a whole range of star clusters, nebula and galaxies,” says John Holtz of Point Breeze, president of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh.

Observatories, star parties and sky watching events throughout the region give even a novice astronomer a chance to see the wonders of the skies. It’s an excitement felt beyond our region. The sixth annual Astronomy Festival on the National Mall, which drew 7,000 last year, is preparing for 10,000 this year on June 19 on the Washington Monument Grounds.

Take the Andromeda Galaxy as an example, says Lou Coban, Allegheny Observatory operations manager.

“It’s fascinating to look at our nearest galactic neighbor and realize that it’s 2.2 million light years away, and you can see it,” he says.

To put that in perspective, he adds, the distance of 1 light year is about 5.87 trillion miles. Multiply 5.87 trillion miles by 2.2 million light years to get the distance to the nearest galaxy.

“Since the speed of light is finite, you are also looking backward in time, you are seeing the galaxy as it existed 2.2 million years ago!”

At Wagman Observatory in Allegheny County’s Deer Lakes Park, Frazer, two young men quietly watching the star presentation of a member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh could no longer maintain their silence when the lecturer invited everyone to share his view of Jupiter and its four bright moons through his telescope.

“Go get Grandma out of the truck!” one of the youngsters exclaimed. A few minutes later, they were helping an 80-plus-year-old lady across the field to the lens, high on the hill. After looking at Jupiter for a while, Grandma said, “I thought I would never see that!”

It is such discoveries by all ages that make stargazing an entertaining and educational way to spend time.

“We hear a lot of ‘wows’ when people are looking at objects, especially Saturn or the moon,” says Ken Kobus of Bethel Park, associate director of Mingo Park Observatory in Washington County, which has recently added a special telescope for viewing the sun and solar prominences.

At the June 19 and 20 star parties, he will discuss how astronomers determined the correct time and how they distributed it with a system that was developed in Pittsburgh in the late 1860s.

“We get many families and groups at both Mingo and Wagman, and we welcome them,” he says.

There’s opportunity at these events to observe the night sky, learn about astronomy, and how to choose the correct telescopes and binoculars from experienced, friendly amateur astronomers, says Tom Reiland of Shaler, director of Wagman.

“They love to help (and share their telescopes). People are often surprised at what they can see,” he says.

“We make astronomy fun,” says veteran association member Bill Moutz of Penn Hills, who refers to himself as “just a guy with a scope who enjoys sharing the night sky.”

With “new discoveries all the time,” he believes interest has increased in those skies.

Moutz enjoys helping out with the annual free Raystown Lake Star Party in Huntingdon County, scheduled for Aug. 15.

“The sky is spectacular, especially on new moon nights,” he says.

Holtz says the number of opportunities and information is growing. “The Internet has made it easier for would-be stargazers to find locations that cater specifically to astronomy,” he says.

There is still considerable interest in space, helped by a number of very good cable television shows, says Fred Klein of Monroeville, who will give a free talk on “What You Can See of the Solar System” on July 22 at Monroeville Library. The library will play host to its next star party Aug. 1.

Saturn will be the featured summer attraction in the observatory at Carnegie Science Center, North Shore.

“The number of visitors coming to our public sky-watch sessions have increased, especially whenever there is something special going on in the sky,” says Dan Malerbo, education and program coordinator at the Science Center.

Special phone apps have made learning about the night sky easier than ever, he adds.

Malerbo says the most popular program in the planetarium is a basic live star identification show, “Stars Over Pittsburgh,” geared to families and the general public. A lecturer points out the biggest stars, constellations and planets that will be visible in the current evening sky.

“The biggest event of the summer will occur on June 30 when Venus and Jupiter come to within 13 of a degree of each other in the western sky after sunset,” he says. “That will be quite an impressive conjunction when the two brightest planets in the night sky almost appear as one. And you can view this event from your own backyard without a telescope.”

There will be a total lunar eclipse of the moon Sept. 27 that can be seen in Western Pennsylvania beginning about 9 p.m.

“If the weather holds out, this could be the biggest celestial event of the year,” Malerbo says.

Weather is a touchy subject among stargazers.

Unfortunately, Western Pennsylvania is not the best of regions for stargazing. “There is too much light pollution in the center-city area (and even the suburbs), and we have a of cloudy days and nights,” Malerbo says.

However, local residents are passionate about astronomy and observing the sky, he says, so you will see them out at local observatories, parks and backyards, doing just that.

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rrutkoski@tribweb.com or 724-226-4664.

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