Exploring the Universe's Big Picture

Simply owning a big telescope doesn’t make someone an astronomer or even an observer. This bit of sage advice is from Jeff Whisenant, a member of Catawba Valley Astronomy Club and a contributing columnist for Outlook.

“For those with a general interest in astronomy, there’s no need to purchase a telescope,” Whisenant said. “At lot of folks join our club because they don’t want to buy their own. On the other hand, a lot of folks want to buy their own telescope.”

CVAC members try to discourage a hasty purchase because too often buyers tend to become a victim of advertising.

“We try to discourage buying telescopes with a go-to button or computer because they are difficult to set up, align and use,” Whisenant said. “Become observers first. Start with a Dobsonian telescope, named after John Dobson.

“These ‘scopes are simple to move, stable, there’s no tripod and no oddball positions to get into,” he said. “For $800, you’re ready to go.”

The best advice, though, is to visit Lucile Miller Observatory and talk to club members.

CVAC, a legally  separate organization from Lucile Miller Observatory, is part of the Catawba County school system and is located on the campus of Maiden Middle School. CVAC provides volunteers to maintain the equipment at the observatory and to present astronomy programs at the observatory or offsite. The Catawba Valley Astronomy Club receives no tax dollars from the school system, and members provide their services to them at no charge.

“Club members do the work and routine maintenance, and Catawba County school system pays for utility and landscaping costs,” Whisenant said.

CVAC members give freely of their time and expertise in a number of ways. On the first Friday of each month, rain or shine,  CVAC members offer free monthly star gazes at Lucile Miller Observatory.

It’s part of their commitment to outreach, and, well, just share their enjoyment of viewing the skies through telescopes.

“In 2002, we made the decision to incorporate as a non-profit,” Whisenant said. “Outreach has really taken off since then.”

CVAC increased their association with Lucile Miller Observatory and made the telescopes available to the public.

“These are good telescopes — high-end, amateur grade,” Whisenant said. “The majority of the many telescopes here belong to the school system. It’s an arsenal of telescopes not found in many schools.

“The fourth largest telescope in the state (N.C.) is here,” he added. “It’s 12 feet high, and the diameter (of the mirror) is 25 inches.”

Whisenant said there are not many free standing observatories at schools, so club members try  to be good stewards and respect the equipment.

“Using a professional planet system is as good as it gets,” Whisenant said. “We usually have 50-75 people visit us for Friday public observing.

During that time, club members answer questions and show visitors the skies above the Catawba Valley. Visitors are encouraged to bring telescopes for adjustment or simply how to use them.

Astronomy is a challenge, and it’s fun, Whisenant said, who has observed the skies since 1980. In 1989, he joined the CVAC and became serious about astronomy. Now, he wants to share his knowledge and love with others.

“I just like to get people to go outside and look — get a star chart off our website, take it, follow instructions and make sure it’s the right chart for the month,” he said. “Hold the star chart the way it says to hold and start looking for patterns.”

Club members agree that astronomy is like learning to drive. If you sit in class, you don’t learn to drive.

“Go out and see it for yourself, night after night,” he said. “Sooner or later, you’ll have one of those ‘aha’ moments, and it all makes sense.”

Whisenant advises prospective  observers to keep an open mind and don’t be afraid of astronomy.

“All we’re trying to do is look at the big picture,” he added. “Studying astronomy opens peoples minds to the vastness of space. It’s a good way to learn how big space is and how empty it is.”

“Poets like the notion of a sky full of twinkling stars,” Whisenant said. “They find the slight variations of light intensity appealing.

“Astronomers see twinkling stars as as sign of unstable atmosphere. We need our views of stars and planets to be crisp and sharp. When the stars twinkle, the images in the telescope move and are distorted.”

CVAC member Henry Earle moved to Hickory 18 years ago from upstate New York. His interest in astronomy began when he was a child.

“One of my first books was ‘The Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual,’” Earle laughed. “I was 7 or 8.
Earle admitted he didn’t know much about Maiden until several years ago.

“I went to Catawba Science Center and saw a show in the Millholland Planetarium,” he said. “I decided to do something off the cuff and asked one of the volunteers, who happened to be a member of CVAC if there were any astronomy clubs in the area.”

Earle believes people are becoming much more philosophical.

“We live in turbulent times — stray asteroids, celestial wonders — people gravitate toward that,” he said. “As young children, we do that, and then we drift away to go to school, raise a family and work. Then, we settle down and gravitate back toward that interest in astronomy.”

Earle issued a challenge.

“I’d like to find anybody who never looked through a ‘scope,” he said. “Once they take that first look, whatever happenstance — whether it’s the first time to see Saturn’s rings, whether you’re 7 or 8 or an old man, there’s something special about looking through a ‘scope in real time — it does something. It hooks you.”

Long-time member Bob Hunt, 75, became interested in astronomy in the 1950s. He didn’t know anyone else who shared his interest, so he read astronomy magazines.

Then, he attended an evening astronomy class at Lenoir-Rhyne for the public.

“A lot of people attended that, we got to know each other, then we started weekly open houses,” Hunt said. “We met, talked and the professor said ‘why not start an astronomy club?’”
Hunt summed up his interest in a succinct manner.

“You’re looking at something live,” he said. “That’s my moment.”

Hunt also agreed that people tend to get telescopes bigger than they can handle. As he said this, he entered the dome area of LMO, opened it and proceeded to move the telescope around.

With a steady stream of conversation, Hunt talked about ‘scopes, observatories, planetariums and domes.

“The traditional round dome isn’t used much anymore,” Hunt said. “The one telescope in our dome —  we can move it around a bit. Its a Rich-built 10-inch f9.2, and it’s 60 years old.

“Now, in an observatory, we observe the skies in real time. Planetariums have shows about astronomy. Lenoir-Rhyne has an observatory. Catawba Science Center has a planetarium. For every inch of diameter of your ‘scope, magnification is a maximum of 50 times,” he said.

In June 2000, Lucile Miller Observatory dedicated a new 64-seat amphitheater in honor of Lucile Miller Observatory volunteer Robert “Bob” Hunt. The amphitheater allows CVAC members to present multi-media astronomy programs and guest speakers under the stars.

Want to visit? CVAC members welcome guests.

“Our telescopes become lonely and belligerent if not used, so we like to use them often,” Whisenant joked. “Seriously, though, we love to show off the observatory and telescopes. It’s a great club — all the members contribute. It’s not one person’s club.”

For more on CVAC, LMO and astronomy, visit www.catawbasky.org.

About the Catawba Valley Astronomy Club

The Catawba Valley Astronomy Club (CVAC) was formed in 1976 by a group of astronomy enthusiasts from Catawba and surrounding counties. CVAC was chartered as a non-profit corporation in 2002.

The Catawba Valley Astronomy Club, (CVAC) is a non-profit 501 c(3) organization, an association of individuals sincerely interested in amateur astronomy.

CVAC goals
• to contribute to the advancement of the science of Astronomy.
• to encourage and coordinate the activities of amateur astronomical societies.
• to promote observational and computational studies.
• to develop craftsmanship in the various fields of Astronomy.
• to correlate amateur activities with professional research.

Meeting Dates And Times
CVAC meets on the second Thursday of each month at 7:30 p.m.
Meeting locations
Meeting locations alternate in three month blocks, between the Catawba Science Center in Hickory and the Lucile Miller Observatory in Maiden.
Meeting locations and driving directions
• March, April, May, September, October and November: Lucile Miller Observatory, Maiden Middle School, Maiden.
• June, July, August, December, January and February: Catawba Science Center and Millholland Planetarium, Hickory.
More info: www.catawbasky.org

View Stars, Planets and Moon at Lenoir Rhyne University

Lenoir-Rhyne University in conjunction with the Catawba Valley Astronomy Club is sponsoring a “Public Observing Night.” This event is Friday, June 29, weather permitting, at the Minges Science Building Observatory on the L-R campus. Observing begins at 8:30 p.m. and conclude at approximately 10:30 p.m.

The public is invited to come to the top of the Minges Science Building where several telescopes will be set up, in addition to the12.5-inch Cassegrain telescope in the observatory dome. 

To access the rooftop observatory, enter the building, then take the elevator to the fourth floor and come up the steps.

This viewing will include a rare glimpse of Mercury, good views of Saturn and Mars, and a waxing crescent moon.