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Night Club

Amateur astronomers gather in the darkness to shed light on the cosmos.

April 22, 2010
Cindy Schumacher

Becky Sydney, founder and president of the Maui Astronomy Club and Astronomy teacher in the University of Hawai‘i Maui College VITEC program, has been an amateur astronomer for over 18 years.

“My passion for the stars inspired me to form the club and share the wonders and joy of the night sky with Maui’s visitors and the local community,” said Sydney.

Club membership is free. Monthly meetings include observation of constellations, planets, meteor showers, eclipses, comets and many other phenomena.

Article Photos

Becky Sydney is founder and president of The Maui Astronomy Club.
Photo: Cindy Schumacher

Sydney thinks that Hawai‘i is one of the most perfect spots on Earth to view the stars.

“Tall mountains, dark skies and our isolated location in the Pacific make great stargazing possible,” she said.

Located at 21 degrees north latitude, Hawai‘i gazers can see both southern hemisphere and northern hemisphere stars—nearly 85 percent of all stars visible from Earth. Our place just below the Tropic of Cancer positions Hawai‘i as the only state in the United States that can see the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross at the same time.

“Hawai‘i’s history begins with astronomy, since it was the ancient Polynesian astronomers who found the islands,” said Sydney.

Their knowledge of the stars enabled them to navigate to the Hawaiian Islands. Using their coconut compasses, they followed stars such as Hōkūle‘a and Makali‘i and, once above the equator, Hōkū Pa‘a, the North Star. These astronomers, called A‘o Hōkū, could venture out on any starry night and know their direction, their latitude, what day it was, what month, what season and the approximate time.

“Without watches, their keen observations of rising and setting stars and the cycles of the sun and moon were their tools,” she said.

It appears that their understanding of the stars, moon and sun was critical for cultivating their way of life here in Hawai‘i.

“And more astronomers keep coming,” said Sydney.

Today, Hawai‘i continues to be the world’s headquarters for astronomy. It is home to the world’s largest optical telescope, the Keck Telescope, located on Mauna Kea, plus a dozen other observatories.

One of the worlds most sophisticated telescopes, the Advanced Electro-Optical System (AEOS) is located on Haleakalā. It tracks Earth satellites, asteroids and space debris. Haleakalā, the “House of the Sun,” will soon be home to the world’s largest solar telescope, the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST), beginning construction this fall.

What does one need to become an amateur astronomer? “First and foremost, a love of the stars and a sense of wonder,” said Sydney. “Any clear night, you can go out and find the constellations, planets and any other visible stellar objects, such as the Milky Way, clusters and galaxies.”

Using a special star chart called a planisphere, you can find every star pattern visible throughout the whole year, day-by-day and hour-by-hour, as seen from your location. To read the planisphere in the dark, amateur astronomers use a red-light flashlight.

“Red light has a smaller effect on night vision than white light,” she said.

It is important to watch the stars from a nice dark spot in the countryside. Sydney explained lights radiate into the atmosphere to create a layer of “glow” that washes out the the stars. This glow is known as light pollution—an astronomer’s worst enemy.

“For those amateurs who want to look deeper into space, a telescope is the next step,” said Sydney.

There are affordable telescopes at every stage of this rewarding hobby. Of course, the bigger the scope, the more you can see, but the higher the price and the harder it is to handle. Binoculars are also wonderful, but you should mount them on a tripod for stability.

Sydney encourages all amateur astronomers to join the Maui Astronomy Club to share their enthusiasm of the stars with others.

“Come and see the stars, planets and far reaches of the galaxy,” she said. “We observe with telescopes, attend astronomy talks or assist in real science by contributing our time to astronomy projects and events.”

Having fun learning the stars and the workings of the universe is the main goal of amateur astronomy.

The stars will become your “nightly buddies of the sky,” said Sydney.

Besides that, comets and asteroids are routinely discovered by amateurs.

Who knows, you might be the next Galileo—“king of night vision, king of insight.”

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