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Galileo would be so proud


Amateur astronomers turn park into observatory to share their passion



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Lake Orion residents (left) Tina Berryer and her son, Ben, 8, stopped by Oxford’s Centennial Park to get a lesson in how to use their telescope from fellow Lake Orion resident Gerry Chevrier, a member of the Dryden-based Seven Ponds Nature Center Astronomy Club and a Solar System Ambassador for NASA. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
April 24, 2013 - Downtown Oxford's Centennial Park was transformed into a temporary observatory Saturday afternoon as members of the Seven Ponds Nature Center Astronomy Club gathered to view the nearest star and raise awareness about their hobby.

"I've been involved in astronomy since I was a kid," said John Lines, president of the Dryden-based club and a resident of Independence Township.

"My dad bought a telescope when I was in grade school. The first time you see Saturn, boy, it's like, 'Hey, it does have rings!' You kind of get hooked right from there."

Lines and other club members set up in the park to celebrate National Astronomy Day (April 20). It's purpose is to give astronomy-lovers an opportunity to share their passion with others and encourage them to join their stargazing ranks.

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Clubs, planetaria, observatories and museums host public viewing events, telescope workshops, hands-on activities and presentations to increase awareness about astronomy both as a profession and a hobby.

The Seven Ponds club chose downtown Oxford for its National Astronomy Day celebration because "there's a lot of people traffic coming through for all the restaurants."

"We thought we'd set some telescopes up here and people would say, 'Hey, let's go over there and take a look at that,'" Lines said. "The idea of National Astronomy Day is to do outreach stuff for the public."

Surrounding the park's quaint gazebo were several telescopes, varying in size and design, each fitted with special solar filters that enable folks to safely view the sun.

"Don't ever look at the sun through binoculars or a telescope unless it's properly fitted with the right filters," Lines warned.

One type is called a white light solar filter and it allows the photosphere (or surface) of the sun to be observed. This is where sunspots occur and this filter is ideal for viewing them.

Sunspots are temporary phenomena that occur on the photosphere. They appear as dark spots and are caused by intense magnetic activity that inhibits convection and in turn, forms areas of greatly reduced surface temperature.

"They're still thousands and thousands of degrees, but they're cooler than the rest of the sun. That's why they look darker," Lines said.

Another type is called a hydrogen alpha solar filter. "It only lets in a certain specific wavelength of light," Lines said. "With that wavelength, you can see prominences and flares coming off the sun."

Solar prominences are large eruptions of luminous hydrogen gas that rise thousands of kilometers above the sun's chromosphere, the second of the three main layers in the sun's atmosphere.

Solar flares are sudden eruptions of magnetic energy released on or near the surface of the sun. They're usually associated with sunspots and accompanied by bursts of electromagnetic radiation and particles.

"You can see a lot of detail on the surface of the sun itself (with a hydrogen alpha filter)," Lines said. "It looks kind of granular, not smooth like a white light filter would show."

When asked what makes the sun such a fascinating body to observe, Lines replied, "It's so dynamic."

If the sun is observed at one point, then viewed again 30 or 60 minutes later, "it will look different because that material (that makes up the star) is moving."

To the naked eye, the sun may appear to be a static body, but Lines said, "It's anything but constant. There's a lot of stuff going on."

Lines was one of two people who founded the Seven Ponds Nature Center Astronomy Club back in 1982.

"We meet once a month," he said. "Most of the time, we meet out at the Seven Ponds Nature Center (3854 Crawford Rd.) in Dryden. But we do on occasion meet off-site. Our next meeting, coming up May 4, is at a farm in Dryden, three or four miles from the nature center."

"We try to meet on a Saturday which is closest to a new moon, so there's no moon in the sky," Lines continued. "The sky is dark, so we're able to see a lot more."

While many people assume that "a bright, full moon is awesome" for observing astronomical (or celestial) objects, Lines said, "It's terrible."

"It makes the sky so bright that you just can't see anything other than the moon," he explained.

He noted a full moon isn't the best time to observe that celestial object either. That's because the sun's rays are "almost coming directly at the moon," so its geographical features "don't cast any shadows."

"But if you get a first quarter moon, where you see like half-a-moon in the sky, the sun is coming in at an angle and that casts shadows. Then the detail (of geographical features) just jumps right out. It's incredible how much you can see. You look at that same spot during a full moon and it's like, 'Where did it go?'"

About 95 people are part of the club's e-mail list, however, the number that shows up for the monthly gathering varies.

"On a bad night, we could have a dozen people," Lines said. "On a good night, we could have 30." For more information about the Seven Ponds Nature Center Astronomy Club, visit www.bhmich.com/sevenpondsac or stop by for one of the monthly meetings.

Lines noted it's not necessary to own a telescope in order to join the club.

"We've got plenty of telescopes for people to each take a look," he said.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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