RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Travis Le sets up his 10-inch telescope at Kahala Community Park during last month's Hawaiian Astronomical Society star party.
The cosmos awaits discoverers on a night looking up with the Hawaiian Astronomical Society
Gretchen West spent many nights under the stars with her family. But she didn't become "hooked" on astronomy until she attended a star party at Dillingham Airfield.
"The ability to stroll and view the night skies through a variety of different telescopes was a fantastic adventure," she said. "The night skies bring out the kid in us all."
Hosted by the Hawaiian Astronomical Society:
Join the party: Saturday at Dillingham Airfield and Jan. 27 at Kahala and Waikele community parks
Monthly meetings: 7:30 p.m. first Tuesday of each month at Bishop Museum
Cost: Club dues are $20 per year plus $2 per family member. Student dues are $12 per year.
Also: Members can rent 6- and 8-inch Newtonian telescopes for $20 per month.
More ways to gaze
Bishop Museum planetarium
Programs include "The Sky Tonight," "Explorers of Polynesia," "Explorers of Mauna Kea" and walk-in observatory programs. Visit www.bishopmuseum.org for a daily schedule and for information on astronomy highlights, moon phases, meteor shower schedules and more. Call 847-3511.
Maui Astronomy Club: Contact Becky Sydney at email@example.com. The club has about 70 members.
Kauai Educational Association for Science & Astronomy: Visit www.keasa.org. KEASA operates an observatory in Mana, on the leeward side of the island, and meets monthly on the Saturday closest to the new moon.
Big Island: Visit www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis for information on the visitor information center at Mauna Kea.
Community interest in astronomy has been rekindled, according to Jim MacDonald, a member of the Hawaiian Astronomical Society. For many, last year's debate over Pluto's planetary status piqued an interest. For others it was the Hale-Bopp or Halley's comet, Russia's MIR space station or the Hubble Space Telescope.
"The fascination is that there is so much in the night sky which is ever-changing," MacDonald said. "To many amateur astronomers, it's like a limitless celestial scavenger hunt. Once you accept the challenge, it's hard to quit."
Hawaiian Astronomical Society members meet monthly to explore the night skies at Kahala and Waikele community parks and at Dillingham Airfield in Mokuleia. The viewing schedule varies, depending on the phases of the moon, but meetings are normally held on the weekend closest to the new moon to avoid light pollution. "We are trying to show people what is up there," MacDonald said.
At the last Kahala party, Venus, the moon and the Owl Cluster were among sightings. West even pointed out an upside-down Christmas tree to the kids, to demonstrate how the telescope's mirror transposes images.
The club, founded in 1949, comprises 180 members, ages 8 to 88. "This includes people from all walks of life and various parts of the world," MacDonald said.
Some club members have photographed deep-sky objects, others build telescopes and one group has radio equipment to detect ionized trails of meteors. Some had the opportunity to speak via ham radio with astronauts aboard the space shuttle and cosmonauts on the space station. Club members often volunteer to hold star parties for schools and other groups interested in astronomy.
Travis Le, a seventh-grader at Punahou School, joined the club about two years ago after a Bishop Museum planetarium show sparked his interest. "I started to borrow and buy astronomy books to gain more knowledge," Travis said.
"On my 10th birthday, my dad bought me a Meade ETX 90 mm telescope," he said. Since then he's saved his money to purchase a used 10-inch Dobsonian telescope.
"Some of the most interesting sights I have viewed through my scope are the planets Uranus and Neptune. My favorite view is the Andromeda Galaxy and two neighboring galaxies all fitting in one view. The thing that I have learned most is how to find the location of the planets, nebulas, clusters, stars and galaxies in the sky."
As a teacher at Soto Academy, West has found many ways to fit astronomy into her teaching of social studies, mathematics and science. "It is one of the first sciences and has affected man from the very beginning of time."
Last year, West's fifth- and sixth-grade students viewed Mercury's transit from the sun, through a specialized solar telescope. "The kids were really interested in the scale of the planet Mercury to the sun -- it was just a speck trekking across the face of the sun."
The star parties allow new members to try out various telescopes before investing in their own. "The club has rental scopes for members to gain experience in handling such equipment and to learn what to expect at the eyepiece," MacDonald said. "The pretty pictures in astronomy magazines are not what you usually see through the eyepiece."
Involvement in the club can develop into a career or at least a serious hobby. An example of the first case: a member who earned a degree in astronautical engineering at the University of Southern California and is working on an advanced degree in astronomy. An example of the second: a father-son team working diligently to locate all the astronomical items on their target lists.
"Such individuals," MacDonald said, "represent the next generation of amateur astronomers."