Meet the Star Men

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

In 2008, Meade moved its manufacturing from Irvine to a factory in Mexico to save money. Everyone puts some blame on the economy; scopes are a luxury product, and buying one is more than a few hundred dollars out of your pocket—it’s also a lifestyle choice.

The trend is reflected in OCA as well. According to one astrophotographer member, membership is declining at a rate of about 70 people per year.

“All the members are older now, and there are not young people coming in,” says OCA member Kyle Coker.

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

Scott Roberts left Meade Instruments in 2008, though he doesn’t blame his exit on Meade’s financial troubles.

“A lot of people ask why I left: because I was turning 50 years old and wanted to see what else I could do out there.”

He has since started his own telescope-manufacturing company: Explore Scientific. That’s OCA president Bobchin’s preferred scope.

“Scott has always believed in very high quality and stringent testing,” says Bobchin.

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Jim Benet explains the geography of the sky through Greek mythology, using the parables to tell stories of love and tragedy, all played out with the constellation characters in the sky.

Cassiopeia (Messier object No. 103) is an open cluster of stars. She was the wife of King Cepheus. Their daughter Andromeda (spiral galaxy, M31) was sacrificed to the dragon-monster Cetus (spiral galaxy at M77), but Perseus (open cluster, M34) saved her. He goes on like this, breathless with wonder and excitement, stopping only briefly to look at the object through the eyepiece.

He is intent on finding as many of the 110 Messier objects as he can—even though it’s unlikely with such a late start.

As he tells stories, he also punches the coordinates of objects on the Messier list into the control paddle of his GoTo scope. The scope whirs into position. He bends over and looks into the eyepiece at M45, the Seven Sisters star group that people often mistake for the Little Dipper.

The paddle beeps in Benet’s hand again, and the scope whirs to M42, the Orion Nebula. A quick glance through the scope at the hazy blotch in the sky, and he’s quickly on to the next object on the list.

Bobchin, like many of the astronomers who came out to Anza, gave up on the marathon when the clouds didn’t clear immediately after sunset. They’ve settled instead on idle gazing or astrophotography.

Bobchin looks through the eyepiece of Benet’s scope as it settles, momentarily, on a star cluster.

“It’s not centered!” Bobchin says, annoyed with Benet’s unrelenting push to see each object, rather than enjoy them in their splendor.

“I’m not going to center them all!” Benet shouts back, baffled at the mere suggestion, already punching more numbers into his paddle.

When Benet needs to take a nap or escape from the dropping desert temperatures, he slips into the back of his SUV, which he parked behind his scope. It’s lined with heated blankets, a small electric heater in the corner near his feet. And if he lies down with the window open, he can still see the stars.

This article appeared in print as "Star Lords: Thanks in part to the Orange County Astronomers and its desert clubhouse, Southern California is amateur-stargazer heaven."

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