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More than 600 of these grassroots scientists gathered last week at the Prude Guest Ranch in the Davis Mountains of West Texas for the 25th annual Texas Star Party, some driving from as far away as Boston. They arrived at the ranch early to stake out their viewing areas with large squares of AstroTurf staked to the ground, and then proceeded to set up their scopes. Telescopes are measured by the size of their reflecting mirrors, from venerable 6-in. models to souped-up 18-inchers to 362-in. monsters at professional observatories. At Prude Ranch the latter variety was not in evidence, but as the forest of 600 instruments started to sprout from the Texas scrub, it became clear that practically every other type was.
Larry Mitchell, 66, of Houston had to climb a 12-ft. stepladder to the eyepiece of his huge, cannon-like telescope with its mammoth, 36-in. mirror--the largest at the gathering. George Stradley, 87, who still works as a chemical-process consultant, built his telescope, a 12.5-in. model, complete with a polished Baltic-birch mount. "I liked the challenge of it," he said as he squinted through his eyepiece, lining up the Sombrero galaxy. "Besides, I've lost my touch chasing women."
What distinguished this Texas Star Party from ones held only a decade ago was not all the species of scopes, but all the electronics that drove them. After dark, the grounds of the Prude Ranch flickered with dimmed laptop screens--tiny electronic campfires that helped observers sort out the storm of stars overhead. The ground below the telescope mounts was a nest of cables and cords, and when the viewing began, the respectful silence was broken by the whir of telescope motors, the tap-tap on computer keyboards, the click of digital cameras.
The biggest innovation in the computer era is that the tedious business of locating objects in the sky has been automated. In the past, finding a heavenly body involved a sort of cosmic hunt-and-peck, with stargazers eyeballing the approximate celestial spot, then nudging the telescope this way and that until the target object hove into view. Today that job is handled by new systems that combine computer databases of celestial objects and uplinks to GPS satellites. As long as your computer knows where you're located and what time of day it is, all you need do is type in the code for the object you want, and a motor-driven telescope mount seeks it out.
Also revolutionizing the amateur art is new photographic equipment. Taking a picture of a celestial object used to mean mating a 35-mm camera with the end of a telescope, focusing on the target for as long as an hour, then fooling with the fuzzy image for hours more in the darkroom. Now digital cameras can be equipped with a charge-coupled device (CCD), a digital light amplifier that makes brilliant images out of the dimmest celestial shimmer.
"It's so easy," says Francisco Elguera, a Los Angeles CCD enthusiast who joins West Coast star parties at a two-acre viewing area owned by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society (LAAS). Its site is equipped with 50 small concrete slabs on which members set up their growing mounds of electronic equipment. "The new technology makes a super-imaging platform out of a small telescope," Elguera boasts.