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LAS keeps looking to Curby sky

March 23, 2011
The sky is always above us, full of stars, planets and mystery. But it is often forgotten, giving way to more earthly interests as many people never even look up, especially at night, when the heavens open up and put on a show that tops anything humans can create.

Rick Whitworth, of Louisville, checks the focus on his telescope at the James G. Baker Center for Astronomy near Curby last weekend during the center’s monthly public event. Whitworth and other volunteers set up their equipment at the center to allow visitors a look at the night sky. Photo by Lee Cable
The James G. Baker Center for Astronomy, located near Curby in Crawford County, has developed a place where regular folk can visit and see the show in the sky that astronomers know so well and never tire of seeing.

The group of astronomers, associated with the Louisville Astronomical Society, bought the 40-acre site in 2000 and dedicated its new observatory there in 2004 with a new 20-foot-by-30-foot roll-off roof facility that houses a large telescope and room for visitors to set up their personal telescopes to take advantage of one of the best — and darkest — areas in the region.

Last year, the group built a 24-foot-by-40-foot state-of-the-art educational building to augment their desire to teach others about the stars, constellations and planets, as well as their locations at various times of the day, month and year. The new facility has rest rooms, a classroom, a kitchenette and a large drop-down video screen and can accommodate up to 36 people.

On Saturday, the center hosted a public night and invited people to attend a lecture and look at the night sky through the telescopes of several volunteer astronomers, who set up between the two buildings. Ken Alderson, LAS president, welcomed the crowd and gave a brief history of the facilities.

Mark Williams, of Elizabeth, presented the lecture to the audience, focusing on why there are seasons, why they change and the roll the sun plays that brings about the seasonal changes. Using 4-year-old Nella Schotter, who was in the audience, as the sun, he traced the earth's rotation and explained the seasonal changes that occur when the sun is in different locations.

Williams, who also works for Clear Channel Communications and has a radio show on WHAS in Louisville, used the drop-down screen and a computer to show the position of stars that make up such constellations as Orion and others and how the position of some stars, such as two of the stars in the big dipper, point to, and can help locate, other stars and constellations.

Orion (the hunter) is one of the most recognizable patterns of stars in the northern sky. He stands by the river Eridanus and is accompanied by his faithful dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor. According to Greek mythology, Orion was in love with Merope, one of the Seven Sisters who form the Pleiades, but Merope would have nothing to do with him. Orion's tragic life ended when he stepped on Scorpius, the scorpion. The gods felt sorry for him, so they put him and his dogs in the sky as constellations. Scorpius was placed on the opposite side of the sky so Orion would never be hurt by it again.

Hanging down from Orion's belt is his sword, which is made up of three faint stars. The central star of the sword is not really a star but the "Great Orion Nebula," one of the regions most studied by astronomers. Nearby is the Horsehead Nebula, which is a swirl of dark dust in front of a bright nebula.

After the lecture, the crowd went outside where volunteers, including Jeff McCaffrey, Kenny Napper and Rick Whitworth, had their telescopes focused on Orion and the nebula. The clouds that had hampered the astronomers earlier had cleared and the sky was revealing secrets, like the nebula, that the human eye often misses. Each person was encouraged to go from telescope to telescope and look at Orion's many parts. The volunteers offered information on what their particular telescope was focused on, making each one special and interesting. A small stool was brought to the area so the children could reach the eyepiece on the telescopes as well.

"I've been doing this since I was 9 years old," Whitworth said. "And I never get tired of it. There's just so much to see and learn."

The center encourages and welcomes groups, including Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, 4-H clubs and others, to participate.

"We have areas where youth groups can camp and spend the night," Alderson said. "And when we host star parties, people from as far away as Evansville come here, one of the best sites in the region to set up a telescope. We designed and built our observatory, including the roll-off roof and the education building, and hope to keep making this center better year after year. We would really like for more local people to come out and get involved. We've had several Amish, who live in the neighborhood, come and take part. We have a public night on the third Saturday of every month and welcome everyone to come out and enjoy the stars with us."

The James G. Baker Center for Astronomy is located near Curby, off of S.R. 66, just north of Carefree. Follow the LAS signs. The events usually begin at 7 p.m.

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