Venus in the sky with diamonds
Summer brings out stargazers, from the casual observer to the true astronomical expert
Winter storms let go of the Sierra at the last possible minute, but once they do, they leave behind well-washed skies that enchant a very particular breed of outdoor enthusiast: the stargazer.
Up above the city lights and pollution, thousands of people gather for monthly “star parties” at the observatory built by the Sacramento Valley Astronomical Society at the edge of a seldom-used airport. In front of the little barn-like building, on the flat stretch of runway, enthusiasts slip in behind each other’s telescopes or spin around together in the dark, heads back, mouths agape, pointing at constellations or visible satellites gliding evenly among the stars. They fall into whisper as they hunt around under the dome of the whole unobstructed night sky.
If the mountain air had been warmer, or clearer, on the night of April’s star party, more than a handful of die-hards would have nosed their cars up to the small wooden building painted the color of red clay. As it was, they stood around on the tarmac waiting for sunset, their telescopes gleaming like half-submerged whales in the beds of their pick-up trucks and open car trunks.
Stoically, they squinted at the sun as it stared them in the eye before dipping behind a distant stand of trees. They scanned the sky to check out the cloud cover. What looked like just a hint of haze could ruin everything. “Iffy,” they said to one another. They began to fuss over the assemblage of their various telescopes.
Cary Chleborad, past president of the SVAS, opened up the club’s little observatory. He climbed up on a bench that rimmed the wall, took a hold of the inside of the barn-like roof, and used his entire body, dressed as it was in safari gear, to slide the roof of the building backward on its rails, leaving the square room exposed to sunset. It was an awesome trick. Standing inside was like looking at the sky from a super high-tech tree house.
Chleborad jumped down and circled the two telescopes in the middle of the room, both of which were taller than him. He spun their big barrels around and pointed them at the brightest thing in the sky. There was Jupiter, which resembled a glowing ping-pong ball with thin rings of color around its middle. Four of her moons lined up to the left, until Io, the closest, set behind her.
Chleborad builds “robotic” telescopes professionally, and the two telescopes in the observatory were nothing compared to the ones his company built for clients like, say, South Korea. One of those telescopes weighed about 20,000 pounds.
“It’s a $5 million telescope,” he said. “There’s some strange technology in that one.” He went on excitedly for a while about solar flares, KDP crystals, high voltage, high frequency stuff, and magnetic flux. Then he sat down at his desk in his magnificent clubhouse and busied himself synching up one of the telescopes to a laptop computer.
It looked like it was the geek appeal of the telescopes and computers and stuff that drew these adults with important jobs up to the secluded observatory, but as it got dark, everyone went outside and either dove into some research project, or used their telescopes to simply star-hop, checking in with everything that made them feel small and perfect.
It’s a rule that the kids in the group get the run of the place in the early evening. The SVAS is a nonprofit that partners with other educational institutions to grow kids as freakishly into this stuff as they are.
“Hello,” said a precocious boy named Shawn to everyone who got near him. “Would you like to look through my telescope?”
In the early night sky, people caught a peek at Venus before she set in the west, and then turned their attention to whatever would penetrate the haze. Saturn looked like every cut-out you’ve ever seen of a white circle surrounded by a thick white band.
Charlie Coburn, one of the directors and head of the organization’s Junior Astronomers’ Club, put his open hand up against the sky, blocking out the constellation Orion. There are 88 constellations, he told two adolescent boys, probably 44 of them visible to the Northern Hemisphere. Each one is about as big as your open hand, he said. Coburn walked his open hand across the sky, pointing out Persius and Cassiopeia—the queen in her lounge chair, as Coburn explained it.
People had all kinds of reasons for spending the night outside with the stars. Even in the haze that Chleborad swore would wear off by 10:30, it was impossible to ignore the beauty of a sky with no city lights. With perfect night vision, even the haze couldn’t cover the absolute brightness of everything, and the awesome insignificance of each person in the face of it all. But there was also the science, and the infectious enthusiasm of a bunch of people who were all nutty about the same things.
“Do you know how a telescope works?” asked Shawn, in his best cruise director voice. He then gave the most rudimentary description of how light passed through the telescope and reflected back an enlarged image. He traced his index finger up and down the cool barrel of the telescope. Inspired, he looked for someone else to whom he could tell the same story.
Farther down the line of trucks and cars, Al Petterson was putting his two toddler children to bed in the back of a Subaru. His scope had come to him via a friend who told Petterson that as long as he promised to use it, he could have it. Now star parties were an indulgence that also gave his wife occasional nights off from parenting.
Melanie Smith, who was said to be finding every interesting thing that night, said she wasn’t really into astronomy until her grandfather died, leaving a big telescope that no one in the family really wanted. She took it partly out of honor, and got addicted.
Referencing the maps she spread out on her hood, she hunted out tiny little smudges in the sky that were other whole galaxies as big as our own. She marveled over star clusters that looked like a thousand fallen diamond chips all gathered together in the finite circle of her telescope’s eye.
There were no more than 20 people watching the stars that night, but summer was coming, and nights that peaceful would be few and far between until the weather turned cold again. Voices fell down into whispers. People brought out their big old astronomy books and their maps. The night was dark enough that you had to scuff your shoes against the tarmac to let someone know you were coming.
But every time you did, you were likely to hear something to the effect of, “Hello. Would you like to look through my telescope?”