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Oklahoma City Astronomy Club has a place to call its own



In early 1958, 200 people turned out near a dark field outside town to get a glimpse of Sputnik as it crossed the metro's skies. Thirty amateur astronomers officially keeping track of the craft's progress as part of the national "Moonwatch" program aimed 10 telescopes at the sky to spot it. Then someone pulled in with headlights blazing, and so much for that.


But the space-fueled interest continued. On July 18 that year, two dozen people with Moonwatch roots met to form the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club and further their fascination with the night sky. The second club in the state after Tulsa, according to press accounts, the group that has waxed and waned finds itself both in a familiar place and on new ground this month, 50 years after it formed: striving to reach out to the public, conduct research and celebrate astronomical events.

The big news for the club these days lies in finally having a piece of earth to call its own. Since first meeting at the Civil Aeronautics Administration air navigation building, it has migrated to Science Museum Oklahoma's Planetarium, where members pull telescopes from trunks for parking-lot stargazing after monthly meetings. The club has set up scopes in city and state parks, but a permanent observatory remained elusive.

"The club is now 50 years old and this is the first time we've had title to our own land," said president Jeff Thibodeau. "We've had places "¦ that we were borrowing or were lent to us over long periods of time, but for one reason or another, we lost control over those. So we made sure that we did something different this time."

Cheddar Ranch Observatory " which the club will complete construction of this month " on donated grassy, tree-flanked land outside Watonga solves a half-century bane of the club's stargazing and educational efforts in the light-polluted OKC. The site will make planned monthly outreach efforts to the public and school children easier, in a safe environment under dark sky. A grand opening and dedication is slated July 26 at the observatory, with an in-town 50th anniversary celebration Aug. 9.

The 30-by-40-foot CRO will feature a 15-by-15-foot observatory housing the club's 12-inch Cassegrain telescope. Through it, onlookers will see planets, asteroids, stars and galaxies not visible from town. But, for club members like Thibodeau, a computer programmer by day but astronomical data collector by night, the observatory will also enable the more scientific-minded of the club's backyard observers to do more of what they like: research.

While some of the club's 120 family membership groups just like to look, according to treasurer Brad Ferguson, collecting and sending in data on variable stars offers an opportunity to take part in a larger scientific community when he's not manning the microphone as general manger of classical station KCSC-FM 90.1.

"That's the extra fun part of it," he said. "You can always just look at these things, but it's more exciting if you're actually adding to the body of knowledge."

Their interest hearkens to the club's roots " the Moonwatch program " and earlier. Christine Pulliam, public affairs specialist for Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., out of which Moonwatch sprouted, said the project yielded teams of amateurs around the country and world working to track satellites when there were no automated camera systems to do the job.

"It was a really good way for amateurs to participate in the whole Space Age," she said. "People young and old, male and female."

Around 1972, almost a decade and a half later, one of those was Mike Pierce, a Norman teenager curious about space. His mother drove him up for the OKC astronomy club's meetings, and a group activity to build his own scope. His flopped.

"We were grinding the glass and polishing it, and you have to shape it and it's really quite precise and very tedious," he said. "I just was too impatient."

A store-bought telescope sufficed instead and an interest nurtured in the club turned into a lifelong career for the University of Oklahoma grad, who now teaches physics and astronomy at the University of Wyoming. What hooked him was the great unknown.

"The vast scale of the universe and the fact that humans were actually working to study this " I just found this amazing," he said. "And sort of the more I read and read about the expansion of the universe in particular, the more interested I got in that aspect. It just became kind of an obsession. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. And the astronomy club was just a great start " it really was an opportunity to talk to people with similar interests."

At meetings today, club members still take turns providing presentations on topics interesting to them, whether seasonal constellations or types of telescopes. That expansion of the universe bit? In the Nineties, Pierce performed some of the first modern measurements suggesting the presence of "dark energy," a hypothetical "mysterious stuff" that increases the universe's rate of expansion. The club cites Pierce as one of its "famous" members.

For Pierce " and Pulliam and Thibodeau " an early look through one's own telescope was key to furthering interest in the field. And, it's a telescope Thibodeau considers a gateway to the club's next half-century.

A retiring Texas A&M University professor has offered for sale a 32-inch scope, much larger than the 12-inch the club is placing at Cheddar Ranch. It would be the largest in the state, if the club could acquire it, Thibodeau said " viewers would climb a ladder to peer through the eyepiece. But with club funds going into the $30,000 observatory effort, purchasing the $20,000 scope and raising $10,000 to house it at Cheddar Ranch would depend on new donations.

"If we can do that, that will really turn the corner on a lot of things. I think it will become a local point of discussion in western Oklahoma and the metro area, and we'll have groups out there all the time," Thibodeau said. "It will really enhance our ability to do the research and the education projects. If we go looking for asteroids, we'll be able to find much smaller ones, more distant ones. We'll be able to gather more light and see more detail on the objects we see in the smaller scopes."

Because really, when it comes to what there is to learn, the sky's no limit. "Emily Jerman

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