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A Universe of Entertainment : Just look up: The show is great, the cast truly stellar.

August 06, 1993|JEFF SCHNAUFER | Special to The Times; Jeff Schnaufer is a regular contributor to The Times.

The best show for Valley residents this summer is not playing at any movie theater.

Each night, high above the tallest drive-in, residents can relive stories of fearless hunters, colossal bears and Greek gods, told in the form of constellations. Or they can grab a pair of binoculars or a telescope and watch the history of the universe unfold.

From clocking the cloud bands of Jupiter to scanning for supernovae in the Andromeda Galaxy, the night sky is one the best entertainment tickets in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys--and you never have to spend a fortune to see the show.

"I like this as a hobby because it's free," says stargazer Laverne Booth, founder of the Local Group, an amateur astronomy club based in Santa Clarita. "You don't have to have a telescope to enjoy astronomy. Before I bought a telescope, I spent probably two years looking with my own eyes and a pair of binoculars and looking into other people's telescopes. That's the way you want to go if you want to get into this hobby."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 13, 1993 Valley Edition Valley Life Page 4 Zones Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Star search--The Times incorrectly identified the man looking through a telescope on the cover of the Aug. 6 Valley Life. His name is Barry Brown. In addition, due to an editing error, the photo was identified as a composite. It was not.

Getting Prepared

The first step in stargazing is to become familiar with what can be seen with the naked eye. This requires finding a dark-sky site with an unobscured horizon, as isolated from city lights as possible, and on a night when the moon is not visible. Try an out-of-the-way park open after dusk with few parking lot lights or, better yet, seek out one of the stargazers' "secret" hideaways, recommended by those who have made astronomy their hobby.

Before you go, consider several stargazing accessories, even if you do not have a telescope or binoculars. First, bring a lawn chair or something to lie back on comfortably. Second, make sure that your clothing keeps you comfortable.

"I didn't care for stargazing at first," says Barry Brown, 58, a stargazer from Woodland Hills. "I was inappropriately dressed."

Nighttime temperatures, particularly at the remote sites best suited for sky-watching, can drop into the chilly range in summer and to freezing in winter.

Stargazers such as Brown, who has learned his lesson, recommend a double layer of warm clothes (jeans aren't enough), something to cover your head, warm shoes and socks, even thermal underwear, gloves and ready-to-heat thermal packs for your pockets.

To add warmth, many stargazers bring a thermos of steaming coffee or hot chocolate.

This, of course, leads to cookies, chips, burgers and filet mignon, grilled on a portable barbecue. Before you know it, you've created a "star party."

But you may want to forget the alcohol, says Gene Hanson, 47, a Canoga Park stargazer and member of the Lockwood Valley Hard Core Astronomers.

"The more alcohol you drink, the worse your night vision gets," Hanson says.

Getting Acquainted

The first thing you might notice when you look up at the night sky is that you feel lost. Fortunately, our ancestors made maps.

Dating back as much as 3,000 years to another valley, the Euphrates Valley in the Middle East, are ancient legends of the night sky. Many are represented in the form of constellations--connect-the-dot patterns of stars.

Today, amateur and professional astronomers use them as "star maps" to guide their telescopes or mark discoveries.

Although there are 88 currently used constellations, the beginning stargazer need know only a few. Bring along the accompanying "Night Sky in August" star map (Page 11) on your first stargazing venture. To maintain night vision while studying the map, use a flashlight with a red cellophane cover taped over the lens.

Getting Serious

Once you have mastered naked-eye viewing, you may want to invest in binoculars or a telescope. This, of course, depends on your budget: Regular 7X35 field binoculars sell for about $50, while massive telescopes such as the ones built by North Hollywood resident John Pons cost in the $100,000 range. And, of course, there are the accessories, ranging from computerized star finders to equipment for astrophotography.

But before you empty your savings account, many serious stargazers recommend joining a local astronomy club.

"Don't buy a telescope too soon," Booth says. "Some people spend a lot of money on telescopes and they don't even know where to point it."

Not only do local astronomy clubs offer honest, free advice on buying telescopes, they also provide a sense of cosmic companionship.

Most hold monthly star parties, near the time of the new moon, during which new stargazers can get acquainted.

It was one of those parties that led Brown to reconsider his initial distaste for astronomy and join the Lockwood Valley Hard Core Astronomers.

"I went back and met the people," Brown says. "Even more than the astronomy itself is the friendship, the camaraderie of the people. They kind of draw you into it. I've been hooked ever since."

Best of all, stargazing is a hobby that, like the universe itself, seems endless.

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