Arts & Culture

Amateur astronomers in the area continue to keep their eyes to the sky

Carl Bracken, Cedar Amateur Astronomers treasurer, gives a presentation to a group of students who were visiting the Eas
Carl Bracken, Cedar Amateur Astronomers treasurer, gives a presentation to a group of students who were visiting the Eastern Iowa Observatory and Learning Center in May 2015. (Jim Messina/Prairie Wings)
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Amateur astronomer Carl Bracken imagines his place in the universe as he peers at the night sky through the eyepiece of a telescope.

“We’re just a tiny part of it moving together, moving through the fabric of the universe,” Bracken said.

“It’s a way to look back in time. That’s part of the magic. You see that it’s so big. What looks like it’s never changing is always changing.”

At 12, he saved $60 of allowance money and bought a simple telescope. He set it up in his family’s Los Angeles area front yard and waited for dark.

“I could find the moon; I could find bright planets,” Bracken said. “That kind of sparked my interest in science and technology.”

His interest was reinforced when a summer school teacher invited him to attend a night astronomy event. Bracken brought his little telescope. A friend’s dad brought a new 8-inch Celestron telescope with an orange tube; years later, when he had a real job and was making money, Bracken bought the telescope from the family for $800.

“It had the ability to track. That’s important for a telescope,” Bracken said.

He remained interested in technology — he designs security systems for a living — and astronomy. These days, he usually views the skies from the Eastern Iowa Observatory in rural Linn County. As a member of Cedar Amateur Astronomers for most of the 27 years he’s lived in Cedar Rapids, Bracken has access to the large, complicated telescopes at the observatory operated by the club and Linn County Conservation Board. He serves as the club’s current treasurer and often presents on various astronomy topics.

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“For me, when I’m out there, and I’ve got the place to myself, I get this sense that we’re just a small part of this really big place,” Bracken said. “It’s almost magical when you look through the eyepiece ... and you realize you see firsthand light that left a long time ago. I think about this when I’m looking.”

Start With Binoculars

Though there are many computerized telescopes that people can buy, when a parent asks Bracken what he recommends for a child interested in astronomy, he surprises them with his answer.

“A pair of binoculars is a great place to start,” Bracken said.

For a couple of hundred dollars, a family can invest in a good quality pair of binoculars that have multiple uses, from viewing sporting events or concerts to bird watching. Parents can see the logic in that, Bracken said.

“You don’t need big, complicated equipment to have some luck finding something that’s really neat,” Bracken said.

Aside from the cost, simplicity of use also is a benefit. A pair binoculars and a copy of Gary Seronik’s “Binocular Highlights: 109 Celestrial Sights for Binocular Users” is all that’s needed. The spiral-bound book, published by Sky & Telescope, is designed to be taken outside to use as a reference. It breaks up the night sky by season, with descriptions of what’s suited for binocular viewing, Bracken said.

On chilly, crisp winter nights, Bracken advises looking south. Orion is the quintessential winter constellation, he said. When the sky is dark and relatively clear, with binoculars, it’s not difficult to spot the glowing cloud of the Orion nebula. From late spring to early summer, the Milky Way is visible.

It’s best to be seated to view objects high in the sky. For less blurry viewing, Bracken advised leaning on a tree.

Another option is to spend a couple of thousand dollars on powerful binoculars with stabilizers built-in. That’s what Fred Young, the astronomy club’s membership chair, uses to scan the skies when he’s not at the observatory.

Young, an electrical engineer who retired from Rockwell Collins, got into astronomy a bit later in life. He joined the club three years ago when he was looking to buy a telescope. He never did.

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“I bought a pretty fancy pair of binoculars,” Young said. “They are electronic, based off the Canon camera that adjusts for shaking.”

He hasn’t done many viewings from home lately.

“We haven’t had a lot of good weather to do that,” Young said.

He sometimes pays for time on an internet-controlled commercial telescope through iTelescope at itelescope.net.

“You pay for a certain amount of time, and it takes pictures,” Young said.

Planning for the observatory to reopen

Young enjoys astronomy club speakers, including Bracken, and the 12 public nights at the observatory. After a talk on an astronomy subject, participants head to the buildings where they can view the stars and planets.

“I like to run the telescopes when there are kids here, and they look through the telescope for the first time,” Young said.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the observatory has been closed. All club and public events there have been canceled for the foreseeable future.

Some astronomy club members are using the time to review and edit photos they’ve taken over the years through telescopes. Others, like Bracken, are researching presentations they hope to deliver to club members or the public later this year.

When Everything Aligns

A few weeks ago, Bracken went to the observatory to do a little maintenance. He’d planned ahead, doing research and writing down coordinates for something he hoped he’d have time to see. All the good things in life take a bit of effort, but sometimes you get rewarded, Bracken said.

The astronomer’s curse is the weather, he said. But not that Monday night. He used dials to maneuver the motors that move the observatory’s huge, decades-old 24-inch Boller & Chivens telescope.

His hope? Maybe he’d see Comet ATLAS (C/2019 Y4), discovered in late December in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, by the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), which is how the comet got its name.

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Comet ATLAS is on a weird trajectory, Bracken said, and nobody knows if it will survive its loop around the sun. He knew the chance to see Comet Atlas was fleeting, and he wouldn’t have much time to find it in the night sky.

“That’s the thing about comets: they’re visitors. Sometimes they get too close to the sun,” Bracken said.

But when he looked through the eyepiece, there it was. “I got to see this comet.”

“Every now and then, it works, and all the equipment is working, and the sky is there, and you’re looking in the right direction, and you get to see something really, really cool. It’s rewarding,” Bracken said.

Learn More

Learn more about astronomy from Cedar Amateur Astronomers (CAA) at cedar-astronomers.org. The site has links to view a Clear Sky Chart and astronomy-related links. The club’s events page will list events open to the public held at Eastern Iowa Observatory, including a daytime Solar Day, currently scheduled for July 25.

Eastern Iowa Observatory is currently closed. It is a collaborative project of the CAA and Linn County Conservation Board. The facility includes the Eastern Iowa Observatory Learning enter and two buildings with permanently mounted telescopes.

Eastern Iowa Observatory is on the grounds of Palisades-Dows Preserve in rural Linn County between Mount Vernon and Ely.

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