Stargazing in the suburbs

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, March 20th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. It was 54 years ago this week that Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov took the first walk in space.

EICHER: We usually think exploring the stars is something only for rocket scientists. But in the suburbs of Chicago, amateur astronomers are doing some exploring of their own.

WORLD Radio’s Anna Johansen has the story.

WRIGHT: I think we might be able to see two galaxies now. 

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: This is M-81. It’s a galaxy about 12 million light years away. Through the telescope lens, it just looks like a glowing white smudge. But you have to admit, it does have a catchy name.

WRIGHT: So I’ve got my lowest power eyepiece in here, so we can see the most of the sky possible and wow, that looks really nice.

Nathan Wright is an amateur astronomer. By day, he works in machining. By night, he watches the skies. Tonight, he’s brought his Dobsonian telescope. It looks kind of like a cannon, and its barrel is about 10 inches across.

WRIGHT: It barely fits into my car, but it works. So I got the base and then the tube is in a separate piece. And the tube just goes right on the base like this, and that’s about it.

We’re in the parking lot of a nature preserve, and it’s freezing, silent, and dark. Well, as dark as it can get in the suburbs. There’s still a sickly orange-pink glow across the horizon. That’s because of the city lights.

WRIGHT: If you’re in standing in Chicago on a clear, crisp, dark night, you can see about maybe at the most 20 stars. If you are in a dark spot free of any light pollution, you can see about 2,500.

We can’t see a lot of stars tonight. On top of the light pollution, the skies are pretty cloudy. But you can still see some major landmarks. Or…should that be…skymarks?

WRIGHT: Pleiades star cluster is visible even through some light clouds. It’s about seven bright stars and a handful of dimmer stars, well-known night sky objects. It’s even mentioned in the Bible a couple times. It’s really just insane how much you can see through a telescope if you know where to look.

Wright isn’t alone in his passion for astronomy.

This is a meeting of the Northwest Suburban Astronomy club. There are about 50 people here, mostly men in their 50s and 60s. They come from all walks of life, from doctors to school bus drivers.

PEASE: It’s an addiction. I’ll admit it.

Robert Pease joined this club in 2004.

PEASE: Others of us will spend, some of them all night long and some of them three nights in a row with no sleep. We had a doctor that did that in our club, and his nurses finally got ahold of some of us, just get him out of there.

When asked what the biggest obstacle to stargazing is, his answer is simple and emphatic.

PEASE: Clouds. Clouds and bad forecasts.

That’s not a huge deal if you’re stargazing in your backyard. But if you’re driving an hour to get away from city lights, it’s a bit of a problem.

AUDIO: We’ll be driving out there and we’ll be getting in touch with each other on our cell phones. They said, what’s it look like? Some guy says, okay, you’re ahead of me. Let me know because if it’s bad I’m turning back.

All in all, the Chicago suburbs aren’t the greatest place to be an astronomer. But the hobby continues to draw enthusiasts.

For some people, it’s more than just a pastime.

VOLLE: The heavens illustrate a lot of things about God. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is God’s love towards those who reverently fear and trust him, Psalm 103 verse 11.

Nathan Volle used to work at Fermilab, a massive particle accelerator. In his free time, he traveled with an inflatable planetarium and taught students about the stars. Now retired, he’s still passionate about astronomy.

VOLLE: It does, for me, give me a sense of, of, uh, just peace and a sense of wonder. And that God is in charge and He’s in control. And the other thing is that he really cares about his creation and cares about each of us.

Volle wishes that more people would get involved. He says it’s simple and rewarding.

Back at the parking lot, Nathan Wright says the best way to begin is to start with the basics. Get an app for identifying constellations and go find the Big Dipper. From there, you can find almost every other constellation in the Northern Hemisphere. After that, you might want to get a pair of binoculars or a telescope.

WRIGHT: Once you have a telescope, you can find deep sky objects, which would be galaxies, globular star clusters, open star clusters and Nebula. I would say just get out there and start looking.

Wright swivels his telescope to a different section of the sky. Through the clouds, only the brightest stars are visible.

WRIGHT: The brightest stars in the sky do have actual names. Most stars are completely undesignated because there’s just too many of them. You can’t name all the stars.

Nathan Volle points out that that’s not entirely true. He paraphrases Isaiah 40 verse 26.

VOLLE: Look up into the heavens: Who created all of those stars? As a shepherd counts his sheep and calls each by its pet name, so God does with the stars and the planets.

In short, we can’t name all the stars. But there is someone who can.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen reporting from Woodstock, Illinois.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

Like this story?

To hear a lot more like it, subscribe to The World and Everything in It via iTunes, Overcast, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts.







Pocket Casts

(Requires a fee)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.