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Local Astronomers Have Plenty to Look Up To


As Wayne Johnson sees it, one of Orange County's most precious natural resources is dwindling away, year by year, and nobody is lifting a finger to stop it.

The loss he bemoans is dark skies, the kind of blackness-with-stars that many suburbanites these days see only in Steven Spielberg movies. Drive in some night from the mountains or the desert and you'll see the L.A. basin blanketed in a coffee-colored glow, the result of countless street lights wastefully illuminating the sky as well as the ground.

The same thing is happening here.

A dedicated stargazer, Johnson takes night's slow demise to heart. But while the going's still good, he and others are making Orange County a hotbed of amateur astronomy, supporting one of the biggest and most active clubs in the country.

Orange County Astronomers, of which Johnson is president, is holding public events today and Saturday to mark National Astronomy Week and to introduce the curious to the hobby. Today at the Tessmann Planetarium at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana, club members will offer telescope solar viewings to the public all day, and a planetarium open house will begin at 7 p.m.

"We're trying to get the public familiarized with what astronomers do," Johnson says. Indeed, the events are part of a series of outreach efforts by the club which, in 1990, reopened the Tessmann Planetarium to the public (shows are offered each Sunday at 2 p.m.). Club members often visit schools to discuss astronomy with students, and plans are underway for the club to open a public observatory in conjunction with the Discovery Museum in Santa Ana.

The club has 650 members and, while some are serious amateurs, most are

beginners, Johnson says. In any case, non-members are welcome at regular club activities, which include monthly talks and "star parties" in Silverado Canyon and at the club's 20-acre observatory site in the desert near the town of Anza. The parties "enable you to see astronomy in action," Johnson says. "It gives you an idea of the equipment people have, and what there is to look at."

The hobby of stargazing tends to grow fastest during such well-publicized celestial events as eclipses or comets. When Halley's comet neared the sun during its 76-year round-trip in 1986, membership in Orange County Astronomers surged from 200 to 500. But there's no need to wait for a headline-making event to get a taste of the pastime.

Although it can become an all-consuming avocation, getting into astronomy is easy enough, and it is one science where amateurs continue to make significant contributions: The biggest supernova in decades, which reached its peak last month, was discovered by an amateur astronomer in Spain.

Heading out of town, away from city lights and smog, can make it easier to see fainter objects in the sky, including such "deep-sky objects" as nebulae (clouds of interstellar gas), galaxies and star clusters. But "you can see a lot from your back yard too," says Joe Klotchman of Scope City, a telescope shop in Costa Mesa. "You don't have to travel 100 miles. That's a myth, that you can't see anything from the city."

Several of the objects most popular with first-time observers can be seen from suburban back yards, particularly on moonless nights. With a relatively simple telescope, one can find Jupiter with four of its biggest moons; Saturn with its famous rings (now appearing edgewise from Earth); some of the brightest deep-sky objects, such as the Orion nebula, and the brightest stars, which make up some of the most familiar constellations.

The moon is an obvious object for beginning star-gazers to explore. Contrary to what many assume, the full moon is not the best time to look. The best viewing is during the first and last quarter, when shadows help define craters and other features.

Actually, a first-timer needn't lay out money for a telescope right away. "I think the basic equipment is just a desire to learn the stars," Johnson says. Planetarium shows are one way to get an introduction to the night sky and its most prominent features. In addition to the Tessmann in Santa Ana, there are planetariums in Los Angeles (at the Griffith Observatory) and in San Diego (at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theatre and Science Center).

Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa recently renovated its planetarium and started giving its first shows in 10 years. A program titled "Cosmic Catastrophes" repeats there Friday night. Community colleges often offer adult courses in introductory astronomy that can provide solid grounding in the basics.

Because of Earth's rotation on its axis and its revolution around the sun, the sky is in constant motion; the skies of winter will differ significantly from the skies of summer. An inexpensive star chart, or revolving "planesphere," can help pinpoint the position of the stars and other objects on a specific day and time.

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