Meet the Star Men

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

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.

“Yeah, I could be selling color laser copiers,” says Scott Roberts, an ex-vice president of Meade. “But to me, this means something. That’s why I stay in.”

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Joe Busch's observatory is stocked with the essentials: Star Trek and scotch
Zack Herrera
Joe Busch's observatory is stocked with the essentials: Star Trek and scotch
Sky and Telescope ran LeBrun's ad for OC's first amateur-astronomy club in OCtober 1967
Courtesy Art LeBrun
Sky and Telescope ran LeBrun's ad for OC's first amateur-astronomy club in OCtober 1967

Astronomy has been attracting amateurs since Copernicus put the sun at the center of the universe—and he did it without the aid of a telescope. It’s a science to which amateurs can contribute without needing a laboratory or a doctorate. All you need is an inspired obsession with looking up on a dark night and seeing the universe. Of course, having a telescope helps.

By attaching a slightly modified digital camera, inexpensive factory-built scopes can be turned into astrophotography rigs capable of creating images whose quality can be compared to those taken by satellites. Clubs like OCA have coalesced around such inexpensive gear. And the weather, of course.

“Southern California and Arizona—it’s [the] capital of amateur astronomy in America, possibly the world,” says Alan MacRobert, editor of Sky and Telescope magazine. “Here on the East Coast, we have SoCal envy.” He sighs. “We’re envious of you guys because you have clear skies. And you can get to dark skies with a reasonable amount of driving.”

The weather here attracted the astronomers, which attracted the telescope manufacturers, which attracted more astronomers.

These amateurs contribute to an international community of millions, each with a scope in his or her hands pointed at galaxies spanning incalculable light years. They collect data each night, compile images and scour them for a single dot of bright light that stands out against the millions: a star that wasn’t there in the images that came before or one that has suddenly disappeared. This is how amateurs discover novas and supernovas; their discoveries tell the professionals where to point their high-powered, high-priced gear so these rare astronomical phenomena can be studied and entered into the ever-growing canon of astronomical knowledge.

Recently, a man in Florida was monitoring a star from his home observatory when he realized it was about to explode.

“This is significant, not just because an exploding star is cool, but this is also the best study of a classical nova explosion,” MacRobert says. “Within hours, spacecraft and observatories were watching it.”

The hobby began to take off in the 1920s, when an amateur club in Springfield, Vermont, became the first to build its own scopes.

“They realized you could get the materials, grind and shape a mirror, and build a scope for a reasonable cost,” MacRobert says. “Amateur building was picked up by Scientific American magazine and spread to amateur science and what passed for geekdom in the 1920s and ’30s.”

There are still purists and artisans who make their own scopes, often taking a year to grind a perfect mirror in order to obtain a 99 percent accurate image, rather than the 95 percent accuracy typically found in a mass-produced optic. Some experts can peer through a scope and detect such subtleties in the mirror the same way a sommelier can detect notes in a fine wine that go unnoticed by laymen. The people who sell handmade scopes don’t even advertise because they’re backed up with years of orders that cost three times as much as a factory-produced scope.

Understandably, MacRobert doesn’t see much value in buying the handcrafted scopes when factory-made, large optics are indistinguishable to the average amateur. He does add one caveat.

“It’s crap at the low end because people don’t know better,” he declares. “They’re long, with very small aperture refractors on flimsy mounts. If people will buy them, someone will keep making them. They shouldn’t be bought, period, besides at a yard sale for fun.”

Crap aside, MacRobert explains, “it’s possible to buy off-the-shelf, large scopes for a few hundred dollars compared to few thousand dollars just a few generations ago.”

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Joe Busch is one of those astronomers who’d rather not drag his scope out to OCA’s Anza site.

“I have 100 pounds of counterweight alone on it. When you put on both cameras and the eyepiece, that adds from 80 to 100 pounds.”

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