Party of the Universe

Written by Nathan Winfrey in the July 2009 Issue
The curiosity of legendary astronomer Galileo is alive and well in Oklahoma. Members of the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club follow Galileo’s example of investigating the unknown and challenging suppositions. With special telescopes and a newly built observatory, they hold “star parties” to explore the depths of the universe.

“You don’t need a big telescope to see a lot – you just need to know how to navigate around the sky, and that’s one of the things we do in the club,” says Jeff Thibodeau of Edmond, the club’s president.

It’s been 400 years since Galileo first turned his telescope to the stars, and to celebrate the anniversary, 2009 has been designated the International Year of Astronomy. The Oklahoma City club has been going strong for 51 years and boasts 120 members. Last year, Gov. Brad Henry named July 18 “Oklahoma City Astronomy Club Day” in the state. Around the same time, the club launched its new Cheddar Ranch Observatory, stationed far from city lights, in a pocket of darkness near Watonga.

The club hosts monthly “star parties” at the site, where they’ve built an observatory complete with men’s and women’s bathrooms, showers and a fully stocked kitchen. Club members can check out telescopes and use them at the site. A 12-inch Cassegrain telescope on permanent loan from the University of Oklahoma is mounted in a 15-foot-by-15-foot room, whose roof rolls back to reveal the sky.

The land the observatory sits on was donated three years ago by a family who responded to the club’s appeal for a place to build.

“We took out advertisements in small-town papers to see if anyone would donate the land,” Thibodeau says. “Within a week, we had three offers. We visited them all and thanked the others. This was just the perfect place.”

Keith Wilkinson grew up on the land and joined the astronomy club when he heard of its plans. The club’s activities take him back to his childhood days of searching the stars, he said.

“There were seven of us kids and my brothers and I used to sleep out and watch the stars,” he says. “We had to stay out with the sheep overnight in the summer to fend off the coyotes.”

Amateur astronomers are unique in that they can look into the sky for the sheer enjoyment of it, but they can also contribute to scientific pursuits, Thibodeau says. There are not enough professional astronomers to record all the necessary data, he says.

“Probably the most important thing astronomers can do is to identify the near-Earth orbiting asteroids which have yet to be discovered,” Thibodeau says. “There are literally thousands of them that pose a potential threat of collision with the Earth that we have not yet discovered. We know this by the numbers of new ones that have been found over the years. This is work that is perfect for amateur astronomers as there is a big-time need for recording all this data.”

Other popular scientific pursuits for astronomers right now are the sun and “exoplanets” – planets that exist outside our solar system. The sun is experiencing the least amount of sunspot activity since astronomers have been recording it, Thibodeau says, which means a cooler sun.

“Exoplanets” fascinate astronomers because the technology to explore them is still being developed, he says. The first one was discovered in 1995, and now there are more than 300 on record. They are estimated at 16 to 17 times the size of Jupiter and are also called “Hot Jupiters.”

Being an astronomy club member means interacting with people of like-minded curiosity and love of exploration. Edmond resident Maurice Massey, who joined the club in October, said he was surprised to discover how many things he could see, like Saturn’s rings. “There’s that thought that, ‘Maybe they’re lying to me,’ until you actually see it,” he says.
Brad Ferguson, station manager for KCSC radio at UCO in Edmond, has been a member since 2002. He loves the pursuit for the possibilities it offers. “It’s looking to new worlds, looking way out into the universe, looking back in
time,” he says.

Each fall, near the time of a new moon when the sky is darkest, the club holds a weeklong star party at Camp Billy Joe in the Oklahoma Panhandle. But if people can’t travel to the club’s star parties, it’s still possible to pursue astronomy in the city, or by taking a short drive away from the bright lights.

“A lot of astronomy you can do in the city,” Thibodeau says. “You can see a lot from your back yard. There are interesting things to see.”

The Oklahoma City Astronomy Club meets the second Friday night of each month at the Science Museum of Oklahoma. The meeting starts with a planetarium show at 6:45 p.m., followed by a guest speaker at 7:30 p.m. Different lecturers give presentations at the museum every month. This month’s topic will explore how time changes at the speed of light.

On Aug. 6, Thibodeau will speak on lunar eclipses at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. A lunar eclipse will occur that night – something that happens only once every year and a half.

For more information about the club and its activities, visit www.okcastroclub.com or send an e-mail to [email protected]
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