Gaze skyward on a cloudless, crisp winter night and, if you’re in a place dark enough, you’re likely to see countless twinkling stars. If the moon isn’t bright, you may notice the hazy smudge of the Milky Way. Wait long enough, and a shooting star might flash through the heavens. The slow, arching movement of a satellite may be visible, if you squint and stay patient. Add a telescope, even a small, entry-level model, and you might spot the rings of Saturn, the swirling Great Red Spot on Jupiter and perhaps another galaxy. The possibilities are limited only by the range of your scope, which can peer millions of light years into outer space. The wonders of deep space have the potential to leave even the least science-minded among us transfixed. And for some, the pull of the cosmos is so undeniable that they’ve built backyard observatories to feed their interests.
A handful of hobbyists sport these backyard observatories on the northshore. They can be as simple as a telescope housed in a small storage unit or shed, or as complex as a domed observatory with moving parts, a miniature version of what you’d find at the old Freeport McMoran Daily Living Science Center in Kenner or at the Gretna City Park’s public observatory.
And you don’t have to be a trained astronomer to own one. Take David Pavlich, owner of the Northshore Tennis shop. Pavlich’s wife, Barbara, awakened his latent interest in astronomy nine years ago when she gave him a small telescope for his birthday.
“It sat around the house for six or seven months, and one night I took it out. She said, ‘Where are you going with that thing?’ and I said ‘I think I can find Saturn,’” Pavlich recalls. “If you’ve ever seen Saturn through a telescope, it takes your breath away. And sure enough, I found it, so I brought her outside and she looked through the scope. I gave her a big hug, and here I am nine years later, and I have an observatory in my backyard. So it’s all her fault. She got me started and now it’s an addiction.”
Pavlich built a small 8-by-8 observatory in his backyard with a roll-off roof. When he wants to look at the stars, he simply rolls the roof off, freeing the telescope to peer into the heavens.
There’s also John Watzke, who recently retired from a career in technical sales.
“Back when I was a kid during the Apollo space program, I was just interested in that type of stuff, and of course, every kid got a telescope for Christmas. And that’s what we all started from. The little $50 Sears telescope,” Watzke says. He and his wife, Beth, each have their own observatory in the backyard of their home near Money Hill. Watzke built his, which looks like a regular shed on wheels but with a roof, similar to Pavlich’s.
And there’s Jack Huerkamp, who grew up wanting to build spaceships to the moon. When he was 20 years old, Huerkamp borrowed a telescope from a neighbor. “I got the Farmer’s Almanac and looked at what was out that night. Saturn was out, and I grabbed my dad, my mom and my brothers, and said, ‘You gotta see this,’” he says. Huerkamp has had telescopes ever since. He built his first observatory at his New Orleans East home; though he’s long since sold that home, the observatory still stands. It even survived Hurricane Katrina. “I build stuff to last,” he says.
Huerkamp’s present observatory, a dome-style setup, sits in his Pearl River backyard. “What got me concerned is that the town allowed the property right behind me to convert to totally commercial, so one day I could end up with a McDonald’s parking lot in my backyard. With a dome, I could turn the dome away from the lights and kind of block it,” he says.
Huerkamp drew on his engineering background during construction, taking care of the wiring and mechanical aspects himself. His dome is automated to rotate, and its shutters also open and close electrically. Though he’s a retired mechanical and environmental engineer, Huerkamp admits there were bugs to work out and aspects of the operation to tweak.
The Wonders of Space
While near-space bodies like Jupiter and Saturn first captivated these amateur astronomers, they now spend their evenings staring much deeper into the cosmos. The bigger the telescope, the more light it can gather, and the farther into the universe it can peer.
“I think what really gets a lot of people captivated is the size and the distances that we deal with looking through a telescope, when you consider that one of the really, really close star-birthing regions in Orion is 1,350 light years away,” says Pavlich. “That sounds like a long distance, but it’s right next door. When you tell people that one light year is about 5.5 billion miles, you can’t get your arms wrapped around it. That might be what really inspires us once we get out there and start looking at stuff.”
Even with a hobbyist’s telescope, there are hundreds of thousands of objects to look at— globular clusters, which are massive, bright clumps consisting of stars; open clusters, which are more spread out and consist of a few thousand stars; distant galaxies, far beyond the Milky Way; binary stars, two stars bound together in mutual orbit; and nebulas, stunning clouds of gasses and dust suspended in space.
Backyard hobbyists are limited by what’s around them. A neighbor’s trees or a nearby building might partially block the view. The time of year is important, too; as the earth moves around the sun, different space bodies become visible.
Light pollution can also be a factor. Some areas of the northshore are so dark you might spot the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way, with the naked eye—and it’s 2.5 million light years away. Closer to more populous areas, lights from shopping malls and gas stations can add a hazy glow that can wash out much of the sky.
The rapid growth of the northshore has added some light to the night sky, depending on where you live, but regulations on outdoor lights have helped tamp down the brightness.
“The big push worldwide is the controlling of light pollution through the shielding of lighting,” says Huerkamp. “If you put a shield on the light and direct it down, you can go with a smaller wattage bulb and get the light on the ground where you want it as opposed to just blasting it off into space.”
Mandeville first installed a light ordinance after urging from one of Huerkamp’s fellow members at the Pontchartrain Astronomy Society, a group of 150 amateur astronomers across South Louisiana and Mississippi. The ordinance, which was later adopted by St. Tammany Parish, says that all outdoor lights must have shields directing the light downward. But each town has its own ordinance, which may conflict with the wider parish rules. Pearl River, where Huerkamp lives, for example, does not require light shields.
But Huerkamp says some businesses have chosen to install shields anyway, in part because they can save money by using lower wattage light bulbs. It’s a boon to his stargazing. “Rooms to Go built a big distribution center in Pearl River. All of their lighting is shielded, because they see the benefits. Associated Wholesale Grocers did their big deep freeze unit in Pearl River—all of their lighting is shielded. At the new gas station that was just built at Exit 3, all the lighting is shielded. There are people that get it,” he says.
Each hobbyist’s interest takes a slightly different tack. Pavlich doesn’t sit at his telescope at all; he rolls the roof off his observatory, starts up his equipment and heads back inside his house. Instead of looking through a telescope all night, Pavich programs his computer to aim at and take pictures of certain celestial bodies. It’s an offshoot of stargazing called astrophotography.
“I get the computer going and make sure everything’s focused and set the parameters for taking images. Then I come back in the house and let the computer take care of it,” he says. “All I have to do is go outside and flip a few switches.”
Pavlich’s digital camera grabs photons from space and turns them into data, which he then processes with the editing software Adobe Photoshop. Taking photos is easy, he says, but it’s the processing that takes time and talent.
“The processing really takes a lot of talent to make the pictures look nice. I get a sense of accomplishment from it,” Pavlich says. “Post processing can be quite involved. When you look at a picture of a terrestrial object, it’s real easy to see, but the things we image are so dim. I typically shoot one exposure for eight minutes and I’ll take 16 exposures or 25 exposures and then put them into a stacking program that stacks the pictures, which brings out more detail. Then I go into Photoshop and that’s what drags the data out of it by stretching the image. That’s where science turns into art.”
Pavlich frames 8-by-10 printouts of his photos, giving them as Christmas gifts and hanging them in his tennis shop. Pavlich says he deals with a lot of light pollution, since he lives in central Mandeville, so imaging is one way to get around that problem. “Doing observational astronomy, a lot of things get washed out because of the bright lights. With astrophotography, you can take the pictures despite the light,” he says.
Huerkamp’s sub-hobby is video astronomy. Rather than look through a telescope, he looks at a laptop monitor. He became so taken with the hobby he now works as a distributor for a video astronomy camera company.
“They’re specialized cameras that take the place of an eye piece and allow you to see more—and in color—than you can with an eye piece. It’s really beneficial for people with disabilities or visual impairments. Cameras allow you to see much fainter objects than you can with the eye piece,” Huerkamp says. You can use a laptop or a tube monitor for viewing.
Something for Everyone
Each hobbyist is largely self-taught and without a background in astronomy or physics, which proves that the hobby is accessible to the average Joe. They each read books and did research online to learn the tricks of the trade, but say the best way to get started is to learn from other people.
Watzke says joining a club like the Pontchartrain Astronomy Society is a good first step. The society formed in 1959 and meets once a month at the University of New Orleans. The northshore members—between 20 and 25 people—have formed a splinter group that meets once a month north of the lake.
“This way, you get to look through other people’s scopes and figure out what type of scope you really like and what you can do with it. That’s the best way to learn anything,” he says. Though dedicated hobbyists can sink several thousand dollars into backyard observatories, fancy equipment and high-powered telescopes, Watzke says entry-level scopes cost only a few hundred dollars. And that’s all you need to get started—and get hooked.
Huerkamp and his wife attend star parties, large gatherings of amateur astronomers that can last one night or a week. He’s attended such events around the country and has plans to join one at the Grand Canyon next summer.
“There are star parties throughout the country almost any weekend when there’s no moon in the sky,” he says. Huerkamp frequently joins a digital star party on the website, nightskiesnetwork.com. “It allows people to broadcast live their views with their telescopes and people can join in and chat. It’s a worldwide star party live on the Internet and anyone can watch.”
For Pavlich, there’s something rewarding in passing the hobby on to the next generation. He relishes opportunities to bring the stars to Boy Scout troops or members of the general public, and watches as they stare in awe at the galaxies, stars and planets that first captured his imagination nine years ago, when his wife bought him his first telescope.
“If Jupiter or Saturn is up, that’s what hooks people,” Pavlich says. “Four or five people usually leave and go buy a telescope.”
For more information, contact David Pavlich at email@example.com or visit the Pontchartrain Astronomy Society website pasnola.org.