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Astronomers Bring Their Affinity for Stars to Public

Marla Miller  - Muskegon Chronicle 

In the land down under, the Andromeda Galaxy is nearly impossible to scope out in the night sky. So, after vacationing in West Michigan, amateur astronomer and Australia native Terry Hancock decided to move to the region so he could view the spiral galaxy. Hancock recently spent several months converting a shed into a backyard observatory -- complete with tan siding, a Plexiglas window and a window planter filled with live plants -- so he can look into outer space whenever he wants. Some nights that means waking at midnight or in the wee hours of the morning to view the moon and various planets and stars. He also programs his telescope to take pictures. "I wanted to view the Northern Hemisphere at night," Hancock said of his move.

"Andromeda is the closest galaxy to ours and it's still 2.5 million light-years away. "When you're looking into the night sky, you're looking into the past. It's just so vast."

Hancock and fellow star-gazer John Armstrong are bringing their love of the stars to the public through Sidewalk Astronomy. The next event will start around 7 p.m. Friday in the back (north side) of Lindback Plaza, 960 W. Sherman. A sign on Sherman will identify the location. "A lot of people still think the world is flat and we want to let people know we have a whole universe out there," Hancock said. "It's amazing what you can see, even with the light pollution."

Although both men are members of the Muskegon Astronomical Society, Sidewalk Astronomy is an independent activity that will be offered on a semi-regular basis. They have support of fellow club members, a few of whom plan to come to Friday's gathering. They also turned out for the first viewing in September. Friday's event likely will be the last this year. They plan to resume the program in spring. "We want to do this when the weather is obviously nice," Armstrong said. Their main emphasis is on free, public viewing for anyone, who has never had a chance to look through a telescope, Hancock said. Sidewalk Astronomy also offers the opportunity to swap knowledge about the night sky, learn how to get into the hobby and ask questions about equipment, Hancock said.

For example, the first Sidewalk Astronomy session drew a family who had recently purchased a telescope for the kids to use. The dad didn't know how to use it or much about what they were seeing. Hancock and Armstrong are happy to share their expertise. "I'm sure there's a lot of people out there who just don't know what to do when they buy a telescope," Hancock said. "There's lots of stuff to see out there. "I'm also going to bring my laptop so I can show people what we can see when we've got good sky conditions."

Light pollution is the main enemy of amateur astronomers, Hancock said. The farther away you are from extreme light sources, such as nonshaded street lights, brightly illuminated buildings and lighted billboards, the more you will see. Fortunately, Muskegon has many areas shielded from direct lighting. Of course, a good 15-20 minute drive away from the city is a great opportunity to really appreciate what the nighttime sky can reveal, Hancock said. Armstrong said he can point people to a few good Web sites for purchasing a quality telescope and other optics.

The cost of getting into the hobby can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. He suggests buying a planisphere to get started. "You can dial in the day, and the time of day, and it will show you what the night sky looks like," he said. "If you hold it to the North, it shows you what you can see (each night)." Hancock, who had a sign business in Australia and currently works for Tischco Signs, joined the Muskegon astronomy club in 2003. He got the idea for his own observatory after buying his current telescope from a friend in New York, who has a similar setup in his backyard. He started building it in December and finished in July.Armstrong moved to Muskegon in 1996 and learned about the MAS group and its observatory at the wastewater plant a few years ago.

"I didn't even know there was an observatory out there," he said. "I met a lot of people through the MAS, and it really sparked my interest again." Both men said their interest in astronomy started in their youth, and they both asked their parents for telescopes. Armstrong followed the space shuttle missions and read lots of astronomy books while growing up but got out of the hobby. One fun aspect of astronomy is there always is something different to see -- from dusk to daylight, night to night and season to season -- because of the Earth's constant rotation, he said. "There's a treat every day of the year," Armstrong said. "Your best visual instrument is your eyes.

Get away from the light, go out to the observatory or the lake, then you are seeing what the night sky has to offer." Both were inspired by John Dobson, 94, of San Francisco.. He is credited with creating the Dobsonian Telescope design, now popular with amateurs all over the world. He is lesser known, however, for his efforts to promote public awareness of astronomy through, you guessed it, Sidewalk Astronomy. Article first published in the Muskegon Chronicle (links below) and some items of local interest were removed.

Original article can be found at http://www.mlive.com/entertainment/muskegon/index.ssf/2009/09/study_stars_from_the_sidewalk.html