Meet the Star Men

Thanks in part to Orange County Astronomers and its desert clubhouse, Southern California is amateur-stargazer heaven

As soon as the sun sets at the Anza observatory site and the sky turns orange, then purple, then inky blue, the members of Orange County Astronomers start tilting their heads back and tsk-tsking at the clouds. If they intend to find all 110 deep-space objects in the Messier Marathon, they will need each precious minute of night to be clear while they track the stars traveling across the hemisphere. When some stars set, others rise—the Scorpio constellation follows Orion—and the astronomers must see the stars on a corresponding schedule. It took amateur astronomer Charles Messier more than 50 years to identify them in the mid-18th century. Now, if weather permits, an amateur astronomer with a good GoTo telescope can find all of them in a single night, during the long, cold hours between dusk and dawn.

But in the foothills east of Temecula and west of Palm Springs, 4,000 feet up in the desert, the weather is not cooperating.

Craig Bobchin, OCA’s president, sets up on his cement pad a 6-inch Explore Scientific telescope on a Losmandy G-11 German Equatorial mount. To get here took a two-hour drive down the 91 freeway; up a narrow, winding highway; then along a barely discernible dirt road. At 10:30 p.m., there is still a low, thick layer of marine mist obscuring the stars. Occasionally, it parts long enough to give a tantalizing glimpse of the twinkling starscape, unpolluted by city light. When a hole appears in the cloud cover, Bobchin jumps at the chance to focus in on Sirius, the Dog Star, even if only for a few seconds.

Astronomer Joe Busch at his Anza Observatory
Portrait by Zack Herrera/Actutographed by Joe Buschal sky pho
Astronomer Joe Busch at his Anza Observatory
Craig Bobchin, president of OCA, stargazes from his backyard observatory
Zack Herrera
Craig Bobchin, president of OCA, stargazes from his backyard observatory

“This is just a sucker hole,” the Placentia resident says with a laugh. “You get excited and observe through the clouds. Then the hole closes, and you feel like a sucker.”

Jim Benet of Yorba Linda agrees. He also has a concrete observing pad on the Ten Pad Alley flat of OCA’s Anza site, 20 terraced acres carved into a hillside.

“Yeah, and as soon as the first person gives up and goes home, the sky clears up,” he adds. “But if someone brings out a new scope, it will be cloudy all night.”

A coyote yips somewhere nearby, its mocking tone bouncing through the hills.

Finally, the winds start blowing, and the desert air plummets below 32 degrees. The mist freezes and gets blown away. Benet pokes a finger toward the sky and draws an imaginary line across Orion’s belt, then down to his sword.

“Of course, the males in the club know what Orion’s sword really is,” he says.

Benet’s telescope is nearly as big he is, and in the dark, all you can see is his hulking mass cloaked in black, man and gear barely distinguishable.

He is using a Celestron brand, 11-inch, Schmidt-Cassegrain-type telescope on a Losmandy Equatorial mount. It’s the largest scope he could get that he can easily lift into and out of his SUV. The scope weighs 30 pounds, the mount 35. At the time he bought it, the equivalent scope made by the competing amateur-astronomy company, Irvine-based Meade Instruments, would have been too heavy—65 pounds at least, says Benet—because you couldn’t separate the scope from the mount.

The smooth stretch of concrete at the bottom of Anza is the Football Field, where less-committed stargazers can set up smaller scopes and tailgate behind their parked cars. Scattered across the site are individual observatories, the astronomer’s equivalent of an ice-fishing shack. Stepping inside one is like entering another world. Next to the observatories are domes that protect scopes so large and unwieldy it makes more sense to leave them at the site than to haul them out each weekend. On another flat is the Anza House, complete with beds and TVs, a kitchen and bathrooms, wireless Internet and computers. As far as observing sites go, OCA is not roughing it.

With about 700 members, it’s the biggest amateur-astronomy club in the country as far as Bobchin can tell.

“We talk to other clubs on a regular basis,” Bobchin says. “The only club that comes close to us is the Texas club up in Dallas.”

Dallas is nice but not as appealing to a man and his scope as Southern California; between the temperate seasons, the topography and the local manufacturers that support the hobby, there is no shortage of reasons why OCA has attracted the number of members it has. Still, all the signs indicate that the hobby is in the waning phase of its life cycle. Most clubs, OCA included, aren’t getting the young members who are needed to keep the community alive.

“When I joined the club in late 2001, all the members seemed to be graying, middle-aged men,” says Bobchin. “That’s typically the picture that people get of amateurs in the hobby.”

Meade Instruments, once a thriving company that supported amateur astronomy, has been struggling under decreasing sales and changes in management. After moving its manufacturing facilities from Irvine to Mexico in 2008, the quality issues that had been plaguing it only got worse.

Yet the astronomers go on with their all-consuming hobby. They spend cold nights, hunched over their scopes, just for the chance to see the small, blurry white dot of a galaxy millions of light years from Earth. Those who can read the sky like a novel debate the value of their personal skill with those who use the aid of a GoTo scope, which can find objects automatically. Some men spend years working on a single astrophotography image. Some buy thousands of dollars of equipment, then an SUV to haul it all. OCA is so important to its members that they have spent decades debating who its true founder is. Like a black hole, this hobby sucks up their time and money, but they’re not complaining.

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