Amateur astronomers eager to focus on annual winter star party
These days, getting a closer glimpse of the heavens is becoming easier, faster and more affordable for stargazers such as Bill Cooley, 76, of Fox Chapel, who bought a telescope last summer and recently joined the local amateur astronomers club.
Advances in equipment — such as improved backyard telescopes with computerized tracking devices that make zooming in on stars and planets a cinch — is helping to drive an increased interest in amateur astronomy. Another factor is the explosion of information about astronomy available on the Internet.
The Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory is one of the club’s two observatories. It sits on the top of a steep hill in Deer Lakes Park, which overlaps West Deer and Frazer townships.
The club, founded in 1929, opened its second observatory in 2005 at Mingo Park, on one of the highest points in Washington County.
The association has members ages 6 to 90, from professions as diverse as physicians, teachers and garage mechanics.
With about 550 members, it’s the largest astronomy society in the state and one of the largest in the nation — despite Western Pennsylvania’s often-cloudy skies.
Newcomers itching to start will have an opportunity later this month to get pointers from experienced club members.
The association will sponsor Wagman Winterfest, a annual winter star party, on Feb. 24. There is no charge.
It’s an exciting time for people to get involved in astronomy, said Cooley, a retired University of Pittsburgh professor who taught computer applications to educators.
“What’s being learned about the universe is just amazing,” he said. “What we knew 50 years ago was precious little compared to what we’re learning every day with rovers on Mars, a satellite circling Saturn and telescopes above the atmosphere.”
Terry Trees, past president of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh Inc., views astronomy as a time to look back on the past and discover for the future.
“I most enjoy seeing things I have not seen before,” said Trees, of New Kensington. “But also there is the non-observational side, like discovering what some of the ancient astronomers were able to uncover.”
Trees said he most looks forward to one of the greatest sites at Winterfest — the great nebula of Orion, where new stars are being born.
Development of less expensive but powerful telescopes and photography accessories give today’s amateurs the equivalent of the big institutional telescopes that professional astronomers were using several decades ago.
The Internet provides quick access to astronomy software and planetarium programs, plus interaction among people interested in the hobby on many different levels.
One website, for example — www.stellarium.org — lets enthusiasts view what’s available to observe in the sky above their backyards at any given time. The service is free.
Beginners typically start with a good pair of binoculars.
Tom Reiland, director of the Wagman Observatory, said that his interest in astronomy began when he was in grade school in the 1950s.
“It was around the time that Sputnik went up, and science fiction movies were starting to become popular,” Reiland said.
Reiland said that after being discharged from the Army, he went back to college in 1972, and took a course in astronomy.
“It completely reawakened my interest,” Reiland said.
In addition to working at the Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park on Pittsburgh’s North Side for 22 years, Reiland was one of the founding members of the observatory.
He came up with the idea about 32 years ago, and the observatory now is in its 20th year of operation.
Reiland is very excited about the upcoming Wagman Winterfest. Weather permitting, the “star party” starts at 4 p.m., just before sunset.
“We have a specially filtered telescope that will show people sun spots,” Reiland said.