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Astronomical Society has great view of space

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In the clear night over central Indiana, the bright form of Jupiter blazes over the eastern horizon.

Mars, at its closest approach to the Earth, will soon be fully illuminated by the sun. Constellations such as Ursa Minor — “the Little Bear” — and Hercules can be seen with the naked eye.

But hidden in the night sky are also swirling galaxies, milky clusters of stars and colorful nebulas, visible only with the power of a telescope.

That’s where members of the Indiana Astronomical Society come in. Whether through their massive 36-inch telescope to see distant stars or smaller individual scopes, the society helps the public see the wonders of the cosmos for themselves.

The members are amateurs connected by the desire to learn more about the stars and planets, as well as how to share their passion to others.

“At its simplest, all you need is get a set of decent binoculars, lay on the ground and look up,” said John Shepherd, member of the Indiana Astronomical Society. “You can see an awful lot.”

The society formed in 1933 as a nonprofit group binding astronomy enthusiasts together. It centered on the Goethe Link Observatory, a private facility built by a prominent Indianapolis surgeon in Mooresville.

The observatory was eventually offered to the astronomy program at Indiana University, which still owns the building today.

By partnering with the Indiana Astronomical Society, the university ensures constant use for the observatory.

Situated on the top of a hill in rural Morgan County, Link Observatory and Space Science Center provides a refuge for area astronomers looking to peer into deep space.

A powerful telescope with a 36-inch mirror is set up inside the massive white dome, capable of peering into the depths of the galaxy.

Crude controls allow users to open the dome roof, wheel the telescope around and focus on individual objects found in the night sky.

Some nights, it’s the Orion Nebula, a hazy spot on the constellation Orion that is actually a cloud of more than 1,000 stars.

If they’re lucky, maybe they can catch a glimpse of Messier’s Fuzzy Object 31, a cloudy object that is actually a spiral galaxy located 2 million light years away.

“When you get in a really dark place, you can look up and see it with your naked eye. It’s a bright fuzzy spot, and it’s very large,” said Bill Conner, president of the Indiana Astronomical Society.

During regular stargazing events conducted by the society, the big 36-inch telescope attracts the most attention. But astronomers from all over central Indiana will bring their own, smaller telescopes to the observatory as well.

New visitors can walk the grounds, peering into the eyepieces to discover planets and stars they had never seen before.

First, members point out well-known constellations such as Orion or Ursa Major, the “Great Bear,” using a laser pointer.

Once people have a fix on those, they can be directed to harder-to-find objects. The society also provides star guides to assist people in navigating.

“Telescopes are worthless unless you know what your looking for. Just like Rand McNally, you can buy a big old atlas, and it’s just like if you’re going on a road trip. You go into the atlas and find where things are,” Conner said.

Those who are more serious can borrow a 6-inch or 8-inch telescope to take to their own homes, testing it before investing in one themselves.

The group’s main focus is to broaden knowledge of the night sky, Shepherd said. They have done that by bringing telescopes and education programs to schools, Scout groups and libraries.

The society has given presentations at the Greenwood Public Library and branches of the Johnson County Public Library.

Recently, the society invited people to the Clark-Pleasant branch of the Johnson County Public Library to learn about how to get started in astronomy. They spoke about constellations and planets that could be seen this time of year, how to buy the right telescope and the best astronomy apps for the mobile devices.

“We’re always trying to offer different instructional programs, and astronomy has been popular in the past,” said Erin Cataldi, teen and adult services librarian. “It turned out to be a perfect night, since it wasn’t too cold and you could see a ton of stars. A lot of people came and wanted to know a little more about astronomy.”

Indiana lags behind the rest of the nation in science, technology, engineering and math education, Shepherd said. Astronomy could be the answer to increasing interest in those areas among students.

“Astronomy is not just looking at pretty pictures. It’s math, physics, quantum mechanics, particle physics, chemistry,” Shepherd said. “It’s all mixed in together.”

The idea led to the creation of a young astronomers club, partnering with area libraries and computer labs to introduce them to the wild features of the universe.

“Not only did it give kids a chance to come in and look at things, but they could touch and do activities around them,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd’s fascination with the night sky came when he was a child. Growing up in the country, he and his father would lay in the backyard and stare up at the stars.

His father’s fascination only fed his own interest, and on his 10th birthday, Shepherd received his own telescope.

“Dad would tell me what this and that constellation was, we’d look at this cloud or look at the moon,” he said. “Everything blossomed from there.”

As manager of the Link Observatory, he has worked with other residents interested in astronomy to help improve understanding of space.

Seeing as much of the night sky isn’t as easy today as it was even 30 or 40 years ago.

Because of its proximity to Indianapolis, Johnson County doesn’t boast the best stargazing conditions, Conner said. The light bubble thrown up by streetlamps, parking lot illuminations and other light pollution means that only the brightest celestial bodies show up.

But residents who find themselves in the deserted areas around Shades State Park near Crawfordsville will find an inky blackness highlighted by hundreds of thousands of pin-pricks of light.

Link Observatory is far enough away from the suburbs to still offer good views, Conner said.

While the observatory is the Indiana Astronomical Society’s main hub, the group also maintains a number of other stations throughout the state. Monthly stargazes are conducted at McCloud Nature Park in North Salem from spring to fall.

A small observatory is kept in Clinton County, as well.

Members and astronomy enthusiasts hope that by presenting a wide range of options, they can get more and more people interested in space. Maybe, the love of the stars will lead to something much, much greater.

“We want to spark the interest, and see where it goes,” Shepherd said. “What we want to do is one of these days, have our kids suited up and headed to Mars.”

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