Sunday 26 July 2020

‘A meteor will go by, and everyone gasps’: Meet the world’s most dedicated stargazers

Every year, amateur telescope makers gather under starry skies in the US and South Africa – to trade tips and tales from across the universe

You have to be rigorous. You need perseverance. You must be meticulously clean. But even if you possess all these skills, none of them matters if you are in a hurry. Because there is one thing enthusiasts make clear from the start: building a telescope from scratch takes time. “It will often take a year to make your first mirror,” says Ken Slater, a board member of the Springfield Telescope Makers. “There are plenty of people who get frustrated and give up. It’s really a geeky, focused effort.”
Ken Slater, of the Springfield Telescope Makers, photographed at the annual Stellafane ‘star party’ convention outside Springfield, Vermont; the Stellafane clubhouse. Composite: Robert Ormerod

Every year, barring global pandemics, hundreds of amateur telescope makers haul their instruments to Stellafane, the club’s annual convention held in 90 acres of Vermont hill country. Most are a drive away, but others turn up, designs in hand, from Europe, Japan, Australia and China. The daylight hours are whiled away at lectures, demonstrations and how-to classes. And then there is the swapping table, where attendees pick over bits and bobs – motor drives, autofocusers, ball mounts and the like – the seeds of their next creations.

When darkness falls, the observing begins. Last year, that meant 900 people and nearly half as many telescopes peering up at the heavens. Often the gathering coincides with the Perseids, a spectacular meteor shower. “You’ll be standing in the dark, in this big field with hundreds of people, and maybe 75% are waiting in line to look through a telescope,” Slater says. “They’ll be looking up and a meteor will go by, and the whole hillside will let out a gasp and a sigh.”
A young girl (right) at ScopeX, an amateur expo in Johannesburg. Photograph: Robert Ormerod

For all the stargazing that goes on at Stellafane, it is not the main event. That falls to the judges, who move from telescope to telescope, examining craftsmanship, inspecting components, and testing optical quality. Coveted awards are handed out, but winners are not declared lightly. To land an award at Stellafane is to achieve something special. “We are,” Slater says, “the gold standard.”

As might be expected when people are judged on the fruits of hundreds of hours in the workshop, the competition can be fierce. 

More often than not, the antique restoration award is a battle between an enthusiast in Delaware and another in Long Island. Delaware is on a winning streak, for the time being at least. Rivalries build up. I hear there can be friction.

Slater, a retired engineer, reckons he must have built a dozen telescopes for his own use and helped in the making of hundreds. He happily admits to spending more time on construction than actual use. “It’s more about understanding and learning and saying, hey, I made that all myself,” he says. “Most of us are addicted.”
Hours before dark, the field at Stellafane fills with people and telescopes. Photograph: Robert Ormerod

It is too early to say whether Lesego Masethe is on the road to a similar obsession. Her non-profit organisation, Brain Waves Development, educates disadvantaged schoolchildren in Johannesburg, South Africa, focusing on Stem subjects. She uses a donated telescope for astronomy classes, but felt she needed another, so she decided to build one. She is nearly done with grinding the mirror, a painstaking process that involves rubbing silicon carbide grit, mixed with water to control the glass dust, between two glass discs. The aim is to shape one into a parabola, which is then coated to make it reflective. “You need to be mentally and emotionally prepared, for sure,” she says. “You have days when you want to cry because it’s just not happening.”

What Masethe loves about stargazing is that it makes the abstract real: most people know the red spot on Jupiter and the rings of Saturn from photographs alone. “When you’re growing up, you only see pictures,” she says. “To make your own instrument and actually see them – it has more meaning.” There are life lessons for the children involved, too. “It instils a sense of possibility, that there is more I can do if I want to, but I need to put the work in.”
The night sky at Stellafane. Photograph: Robert Ormerod

ScopeX, the annual expo at Johannesburg’s Museum of Military History, is a focal point for the city’s amateur telescope makers. Leané Landman, 16, has been three times with telescopes built with her father, Johan, a technician at Johannesburg airport. She has sat by his side, looking up at the sky, from the time she learned to walk. 

They began by modifying commercial telescopes, but steadily became more ambitious. “You do some woodwork, you do some metalwork, you do some electronics, and you put it together,” Johan says. “And then you sit there all night looking at the stars and planets, and go to work the next morning tired as hell.”
Lesego Masethe (left) and Precious Nobuhle Tshabalala, with their telescope at ScopeX. 
Masethe works with disadvantaged schoolchildren in Johannesburg, teaching them astronomy. Photograph: Robert Ormerod

For the most part, amateur telescope-making draws the older crowd. Time and money play a part, but there are other factors, Leané points out. “I’m lucky because I have a father who, since I can remember, has taught me this stuff,” she says. “Not everyone has that knowledge to pass on to younger people.” For her, stargazing is wondrous and mind-boggling. “The light we see through the telescope: that’s often been produced thousands of years ago. You are watching history in the making. It’s like time travelling,” she says.
Johan Landman with daughter Leané, 16. Photograph: Robert Ormerod

Back in the US, Zane Landers, a 17-year-old from Stamford, Connecticut, says it was sheer frustration that drove him to amateur telescope-making. He didn’t get on with commercial instruments, so bought some old books and read up. His first visit to the Stellafane convention was a sobering experience. “You have people there who make tubes out of carbon fibre. They have custom-machined aluminium, steel, acrylic, plastic, wood, everything you could have on a telescope, all perfectly made. You look at it and think, I’m not worthy. My early efforts looked like garbage piles.”
Zane Landers, 17, with one of his homemade telescopes. Photograph: Robert Ormerod

But two things became clear at Stellafane. For a start, amateurs are often self-taught. They have simply decided to devote the necessary hours to learning how to build the instruments. Second, the culture is to help out and share tips. One steep learning curve later, Landers is building a 24-inch telescope, a contender for the largest ever made by a teenager, and documents his efforts on YouTube and Instagram.

Meticulous construction has its satisfactions, but Landers is not one to focus on appearances. “You see people at Stellafane with these beautiful telescopes, and you talk to them and realise they didn’t build it to look through, they built it to look at. The best telescope is not one that has a perfect varnish and looks beautiful in the living room. The best telescope is one that you beat the hell out of, that you use every night,” he says. “It might look bad, but it was made so it would work. It’s worth remembering that you use these things in the dark.”

(Source: The Guardian)

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