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The final frontier

Mid-Hudson Astronomy Club scans the cosmos

by Erin Quinn
January 27, 2011 03:00 PM | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Astronomer Tom Rankin inspects the night sky with a naked eye. The Astroscan at his side offers a more detailed view. Photo by Lauren Thomas.
Since 1985, a group of professional, amateur and the simply curious-to-learn astronomy buffs formed The Mid-Hudson Astronomy Club -- which now boasts 75-plus members, a monthly outdoor “star-gazing party” and a monthly indoor meeting where a wide range of astronomy experts provide the group with compelling lectures and timely cosmic matters.

Tom Rankin, one of the founding members of the group and now the director, remembers a surge of interest among the public back in the 1980s, when Haley’s Comet was predicted to make an appearance.

“There was interest worldwide and right here in the Hudson Valley, so a bunch of us formed this club and I remember looking at Haley’s Comet together when it was at its brightest in April of ’86,” he said.

An engineer by profession, Rankin, like many other members of the club, was someone who always had an interest in and love of the sky.

“I’ve always lived in the country,” said the Tillson resident. “I’ve always been curious about the sky, and after graduating college I bought a small telescope. When we formed the club, my passion only increased and my knowledge grew, as did my interest.”

Now Rankin boasts a unique telescope -- an Astroscan -- a small, red, portable telescope that he can throw in his backpack to observe the sky when hiking or travelling.

“It’s very rugged and I love it,” he said. “It’s on the economical side of telescopes, which I like...but our group has all types of telescopes. Some make their own, others have simplistic ones and still others have huge, expensive telescopes -- which I love because I get a chance to look through them when we all meet together.”

David Rossetter, of Gardiner, an airline pilot, was also just a cosmically curious man who found out about the club through happenstance. “I’ve always loved and been fascinated by astronomy,” said Rossetter, who was formerly the vice-president of the club and now says he’s just “a regular guy in a great club.”

Similar to Rankin, Rossetter was always intrigued by astronomy and was completely taken by the PBS “Cosmos” series hosted by famed astrophysicist Carl Sagan. “He was the guy that would go on the Johnny Carson show and Carson would tease him about ‘100,000,000 million stars? Two zillion-billion stars?’”

He kept wanting to get more involved in astronomy and learn about the cosmos and finally in the 1990s bought a pair of binoculars and would walk Guilford Road in Gardiner to check out the sky. “One time I ran into some neighbors who were also walking with binoculars. They were bird-watching and I told them I was sky-watching and one of them was a member of the Mid-Hudson Astronomy Club and encouraged me to come along one night, which I did, and I dove in headfirst. I really got into it.”

So much so that he now owns many telescopes, including the daddy of all telescopes, the Dobsonian -- named after a Buddhist monk, John Dobson, who was a famous “sidewalk” astronomer in California and would educate anyone and everyone on the moon and planets. He invented a very simple, reflector telescope that evolved into the Dobsonian -- 9 feet tall with a 25-inch scope that requires a step ladder to reach up to and to observe those “white blobs in the sky, which very quickly become clear with this telescope and turn into galaxies and spiral galaxies … it’s amazing.”

In fact, Rossetter, who was recently one of the main club members that helped to book experts to come and talk to the group, noted that besides having “so many incredible, well-known astronomists, astrophysicists, nuclear physicists come to speak, we had John Dobson, who is now in his 90s and still is a sidewalk astronomer.”

Rankin and Rossetter both note that the club includes the entire spectrum of sky lovers, including “children, beginners, amateurs and those that make their living from astronomy either as writers or professors … we all just love to learn and enjoy the sky,” Rankin said.

To that end, the club hosts one evening a month at Wilcox Park near Red Hook where they gather to observe the sky with their various level of lenses and expertise and camaraderie, as well as a monthly “indoor” meeting at SUNY New Paltz, where they do a quick business meeting and then invite in experts in the field from astronomers to nuclear-physicists, geologists, biologists, writers. And when those experts aren’t available, they watch DVDs on topical cosmic issues and have lively discussions.

The meetings are completely free and welcome the public, regardless if you can or can’t pick out the Big Dipper or if you’re a published astronomy professor who gets invited to the White House to discuss the latest galaxy discovery.

“We welcome everyone because we all just enjoy the excitement of seeing such spectacular things in this universe and realizing how vast and beautiful the sky is,” Rossetter said.

The club typically meet on the third Tuesday of the month at SUNY and their nighttime gatherings depend on the phase of the moon and visual clarity. To learn more, visit www.midhudsonastro.org.

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