Astronomy clubs eye night skies and an uncertain future


Club volunteers Jim and Marolyn Simpson focus their telescope as Michael Ottinger looks on during the National Capital Astronomers Club monthly outreach event at Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington. October, 20, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Craig Hudson/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Who knows what might be out there? The darkening sky above Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington was star-speckled and seemingly endless. On this October night, it held the potential of seeing a flurry of shooting stars stream across its canvas.

Who knew who might come out here? Joe Morris, president of the National Capital Astronomers, came prepared for anyone. He had pieced together a squat, black reflector telescope with an 11-inch lens. Other members of the amateur astronomy club put together two more telescopes on the ground, eager for anyone to stop by for a glance.

They hoped the look might be the hook. Like many astronomy groups across the country, this club has seen its membership remain steady — but only steady. Amateur astronomy thrived in the Space Race era, but some worry that interest in the hobby is fading as its biggest enthusiasts begin to gray.

“I’d love to say we are growing in numbers, but we aren’t,’’ Morris said of his 130-person club. “There’s an urgent need in this country to improve the attractiveness of this profession.”

Club members head to Rock Creek Park once a month to gaze at stars — and hunt for stargazers. It has less to do about the preservation of the group and more to do with the preservation of one of science’s most important hobbies.

Morris, 69, carried a stack of handouts explaining various celestial bodies. A small flashlight with a bright red bulb hung from his neck so people could read them.

When a man checked out his Facebook page on his cellphone, Morris asked him nicely to put the device away. Already, the sky’s splendor was corrupted by the distant lights of the District. No additional detractions were needed.

A couple walked up to Morris. They came because their 7-year-old son had liked H.A. Rey’s children’s book about the stars. Young Sevan was first interested in the book because Rey and his wife had written the stories about Curious George. Now, his parents were the curious ones.

“Do you see that really bright star through the trees?” his mother asked. “We were wondering if it was one or two stars.”

Morris took out a laser pointer and flashed its green beam until it reached the twinkling speck in question.

Turned out, the speck was a plane.

Astronomy has long benefited from people who recreationally stared into space. Ancient cultures drew mythologies from pictures written in the stars. In the 1700s, John Flamsteed, a man without a formal college degree, was the first to record a sighting of Uranus. Just five years ago, a Dutch schoolteacher named Hanny van Arkel discovered a new, bright blob next to a nearby galaxy.

The skies aren’t getting smaller, so the idea that sky-watchers are getting older has worried the American Astronomical Society. Rick Fienberg, the group’s spokesman, said every child is born with a natural curiosity about what’s out there. As they age, that natural interest goes away.

“The younger generation has options that we didn’t have, and that makes hobbying harder,” Fienberg said. “They can read about the stars online, they have social media, and so it’s harder to find younger people who are interested in standing outside.”

Fienberg, a former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine, said he believes clubs will have to move beyond the typical telescope-making classes and meet-ups. More places, he said, are embracing the idea of “citizen science,” in which scientists solicit the public’s help in star-tracking.

Academics are more willing to team up with relative amateurs in scientific journals and name celestial bodies after anyone who has discovered them. Fienberg hopes these steps will encourage future generations of hobbyists.

In the region, the Greenbelt Astronomical Society has 25 members. The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club is the largest in the nation, with more than 1,000 members.

The Capital Astronomers pride themselves on being different. They are affiliated with the Washington Academy of Sciences; many members have advanced knowledge.

“Sometimes, when we have meetings to discuss new discoveries, even I don’t understand everything,” said Morris, a computer science engineer.

He has been in the group for more than 20 years. Still, he has been surprised by those who stop by on outreach nights in the park. One older man handled the telescope so deftly that Morris knew he was a scientist. Days later, Morris saw the man sitting on a milk crate in the District. He was apparently homeless.

About 40 people showed up this month, the night of the Orionid meteor shower. Morris showed off various constellations.

He adjusted a telescope “to what we scientists like to call ‘TLAR’ — That Looks About Right,’’ Morris deadpanned. No one laughed.

“All you’re going to see here is a couple of bright dots which, quite frankly, don’t look particularly exciting,’’ Morris said of the constellation Lyra. But he encouraged them to look closer. Through the telescope, he noted that those two bright stars were actually four.

“We call this the double-double.”

He noted that the smaller stars are only 2.5 arcseconds apart, which equates to 1/136th of a degree.

“Anything I say will all be on the final exam,’’ he said. This joke got a few chuckles.

Two middle-age lovers lay on the grass arm-in-arm, staring at the Big Dipper. Another tried to find a constellation called the Swan, which doesn’t look like a swan at all.

Tania Martinez of Germantown sat in a lawn chair as her two children looked around in wonder. They started looking at stars after seeing an advertisement for the club. Now her 12-year-old son wants to be an astrophysicist.

“Mostly, I’m into learning about the anatomy of stars,” Raul Otero-Martinez said before starting a complex explanation about low concentrations of matter within stars’ nuclei.

As much as he loved science, he also came for the art. What he loved most was coming outside with his friends and family, huddling together, looking away from all his earthly troubles and figuring out the wonders of the great beyond.

If you have an idea for a story about Washington at night, e-mail Robert Samuels at samuelsr@washpost.com.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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