From monthly new moon meet-ups to weeklong 'star parties,' fall is when the planets align for the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club 

While an array of motivations lead some to gather outdoors for long looks at the night sky, Oklahoma City Astronomy Club members are bonded by a similar frustration. This isn't quite the future these amateur astronomers thought they'd be a part of. Life on Earth is fine, if unsatisfying.

"Growing up in the '60s, it was all about the Apollo missions to the moon and all that sort of thing," said Dan Lessmann, echoing sentiments shared by other members. "I'd always somewhat assumed that by this age, I would be vacationing on the moon, maybe even Mars."

Autumn is the busiest time of the year for the club, said Brad Ferguson, president. Longer nights and cooler weather mean less moisture in the air, making for clearer views of planets, stars and space phenomena.  

With more than 100 active members, the club gathers the second Friday of each month at Science Museum Oklahoma, 2101 N.E. 50th, for a formal meeting and presentation. About once a month, it also meets for an observation event, usually around the new moon period of the lunar phase, when the sky is darkest.

The club's biggest event, the Okie-Tex Star Party, is a weeklong outing near Black Mesa that pulls roughly 350 sky-watchers from Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. Some of the telescopes set up at Okie-Tex, slated for Oct. 2-10, are more than a yard in diameter, which means a ladder must be employed to look through the scope, Ferguson said.
 
Last Saturday, the club met at its Cheddar Ranch Observatory, a piece of land near Watonga the group purchased in 2005. The club has since outfitted the location with large concrete pads that provide a stable foundation for telescopes and other equipment.

But having a private viewing platform far from the interference of city lights still isn't enough for some of the group's most dedicated sky-watchers, Ferguson said.

"Some of our members have built their own domed observatories out there that are really nice," he said.
Some are even making plans to install equipment that will operate the telescopes remotely, so a committed city-dweller can take advantage of dark, rural skies from a home computer miles away.  

"They'll be able to sit at home, log in, and open the dome and take a picture," he said.  

Amateur astronomers generally come in three types, Ferguson said. The science types, like himself, look at stars and record their observations. He's specifically interested in "variable stars," those whose brightness changes. Brightness can indicate a star's age, he said, so a variable star often means it's going through changes in its solar cycle. Recently, he's been watching Epsilon Aurigae, which is in eclipse " an event it undergoes every 27 years. 

"It's a mystery, because there's a dark cloud that passes in front of it," he said.

Lessmann is among the second types of stargazers, an "astroimager" whose primary interest is observing through photography. His interest began with standard telescopic observations, but evolved quickly.

"I saw a lot of things that were awful neat," he said. "It was great, it was enjoyable, but I didn't feel like I was really getting out there."

Beyond the Earth's solar system, most celestial bodies are "quite dim," he said, and don't make for inspiring, unaided observation. Lessmann said even enormous, dynamic galaxies often come across as little more than a "gray smudge."

"But when you hook a camera up to a telescope and you take an exposure over an extended period of time, all of a sudden they take on a very different light " a much more colorful, vibrant light," he said. "For me, it's a way to get out there."

Lessmann's images are often uninspiring when first captured. He has four cameras at his disposal, including some modified commercial models and an advanced, monochrome astronomical unit. Special filters are used and post-processing brings out bands of light and color not observable from the photos alone. The long, tedious process only adds to the experience, he said.
 
"It's not so much about, 'Gee, how pretty is my picture,'" he said. "It's more about, 'Oh, my gosh, I did that.'"

Club member Steven Arthurton owns Steve's Pro Shop in Midwest City, which, oddly enough, sells both bowling equipment and telescopes. He's another kind of stargazer, perhaps the most common. Ever since Halley's Comet swung through the inner solar system in 1986, he's just wanted to look.

"The first time I looked through a telescope I had no idea what I'd see," he said. "It's been 30 years, and it still feels like magic." "Joe Wertz

photo Steven Arthurton. photo/Mark Hancock

STAR CHART
You weren't built with a big mirror? Don't worry: Fall is filled with plenty of sights for naked eyes. Here's some interstellar activity worth looking for this season.

SATURN: Visible in constellation Leo through September, and in Virgo through December.

JUPITER: Visible most nights September through November in the constellation Capricornus. On Tuesday, Jupiter is directly opposite the sun in Earth's sky.

DRACONID METEOR SHOWER: After sundown on Oct. 7-8.

COMET HARTLEY 2: Will pass within 11.2 miles of the Earth on Oct. 20 and should be visible in the east by the naked eye.

LEONID METEOR SHOWER: Just before dawn on Nov. 18.

GEMINID METEOR SHOWER: Just after midnight on Dec. 13-14.

TOTAL LUNAR ECLIPSE: Observable directly overhead shortly after midnight on Dec. 21, which also is a full moon and the winter solstice.
"Joe Wertz

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