Joining an Astronomy Club: What Are The Advantages?

Joining an Astronomy Club: What Are The Advantages?

People interested in the stars are more intrinsically curious about the Universe than the average person—one might go as far as to say smarter, too.  It was among our very first ancestors that “Grog” or “Ugo" took a moment to look up at the sky, setting aside their desperate struggle not to be eaten by saber-toothed tigers, to see what was going on over their heads.

          Neanderthals or Homo Sapiens makes no difference.  It was this innate curiosity that first led human beings to wonder, even in the most primitive way, about how the universe worked.  This led to the thought that they might be able to change how the world worked.  

We learned how to make tools and everything that came after that, probably because twinkling lights-in-the-sky generated the first spark for the bonfire of intelligence.  Of course, in reality, that was not the sole cause of human intellectual development. 

The biggest factors were the opposable thumbs and the pronation and supination of the forearm.  Our chimp and ape ancestors had a limited ability to partially rotate the forearm, but humans excelled at it, being able to look right at their palms, meaning they could pick up objects and then carefully examine them.  Many suspect that all these factors combined were responsible for our intelligence.

Let’s Put It to Work for Us

          So, let’s get our massive brains in gear, and use out twisty arms and opposable thumbs to drive out to a local astronomy club and learn some things!  You will undoubtedly be welcomed there because our sorts of people recognize each other.  And best of all, they like to share what they know!

          Everyone has seen an image of the famous ~230-foot tall Mount Palomar

Observatory at some point in their life.  Either Palomar or any of the thousands of other observatories that exist everywhere around the globe.  Yet professional-grade telescopes are not the only ones out there.

          In backyards everywhere, you’ll find personal observatories—some of them complete with domes-in-miniature.  Our club has a rectangular building 10 meters long by 6 meters wide, with a rotatable dome at one end, complete with a shock-mounted 12-inch refractor.  It was donated after retirement from active use by a local university.  You might think that everyone would want to use it, but in truth, our assorted instruments from hobby-refractors, all the way up to Dobsonian Light Buckets, can often outperform it, depending on the task.

Sometimes everyone is outside in the surrounding field, but if it's windy or cold, especially in winter, the whole roof can slide away on rails leaving the entire top of the building open.  That’s enough space that maybe ten of us can set up our telescopes within the walls.  That way, we can still get to the red-lit bathroom, or the coffee machine, while long-term photography proceeds, without losing our night vision.  We even have a red lightbulb in the refrigerator.

Club Rules

          Our club also has space at the local University because we develop shows for their small educational planetarium for the astronomy students and the public.  When the weather is bad, we have meetings in the University and plan photography shoots, or periodic public events, where we’ll take a few monster scopes (Dobsonian Reflectors) to city parks so that the public can see some exciting stuff.

          Each club is different, but when you’re invited to the observatory site, there are some basic rules of courtesy to observe when you are driving up, particularly at dusk or later, NO HEADLIGHTS!

          Astronomy Clubs are generally set up in remote sites, away from city lights.  It takes a good half hour to acquire full night vision, and it can vanish in a moment if someone uses an unguarded light.  Sweeping a group of telescopes with headlights can ruin HOURS of work getting photographs, too.

Watch for the signs that tell you when they must be turned off—and always drive extremely slowly, in case there are pedestrians about.  If you always think, "What would I hate to have happen right now?” you’ll probably make good decisions that benefit everyone else around you.

Fantastic Equipment & Expertise

Once you arrive on-site, you will probably see more instrumentation than you knew existed.  Each one is unique (and sometimes finicky or quirky for some reason).  The owner will almost certainly be happy to tell you all about their device and let you view through it if they're not actively photographing something.

There are no stupid questions…only people that feel shy about not knowing everything.  It's okay—really—ask whatever you want to know about.

For instance, if you ask me what star is Mr. Spock’s planet Vulcan supposed to orbit, I can show you the actual star named 40 Eridani, as it is known by Earth people, where Star Trek fiction has placed it.  Better yet, there is a type of planet known as a Super-Earth orbiting it, with much higher gravity, just as fiction predicted…  Some people would say, "Fascinating!"

The Best Part

          Trying out different scopes will let you give some real thought as to what sort of instrument you might like to purchase for yourself.   Other advice will help you select a decent set of accessories that will do the job you have in mind.

You might decide that you don’t need anything at all, and spend your nights watching satellites pass overhead, or tracking the International Space Station as it zips by.  You don’t need anything but a blanket or a chair to watch meteor showers.  A pair of decently high-powered binoculars will suffice to study our Moon.

          On the other hand, if you want to get into some serious gear, there are no better people for advice than those who have already spent thousands of dollars on their equipment.  They know what is worth spending money on, and what would be a complete waste of cash.

The Takeaway

          Whichever club you join, and you probably have several choices available where you live, you’ll find professional amateurs, who are knowledgeable, experienced, and happy to share.  Better yet, you’ll find friends…people like yourself, with similar interests and powerful curiosity.

          Plus, if you happen to spot a new comet, you get to name it after yourself.  You might also stumble across the (inevitable-one-day) killer asteroid headed for a collision with Earth in 8 years; you get the credit for the early warning so we can stop it…

And yes, most of the significant threats have been cataloged, but some comets form about half of the threat to our planet, and they are on 200-year-long orbits.  Since they only come by infrequently, a completely unknown one of them may be coming in just a few years, and we won't know until it gets much closer.  So, come on out and help us avoid the dinosaurs' fate.  We are the first intelligent life on this planet with the capability to intervene on our behalf.

Stars, hot chocolate, friends…and you might be part of a team that literally saves the world!   

Besides, it’ll be fun

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