In spite of COVID-19, the Grand Strand Amateur Astronomy Club is still meeting. And because of COVID-19, it will probably continue meeting, at least partially, online.
To comply with social distancing, the group met online at the end of April, and founders Denise Marie Staffa-Wright and Ian Hewitt think that may be the way to go, even when the virus-caused quarantine is over.
“It’s not like just watching a video, because there’s two-way interaction,” Hewitt, an astronomy professor at Coastal Carolina University, said.
Staff-Wright added that online meetings eliminate the need for traveling, and allow for more people to be involved.
“Not that we’d never have face-to-face meetings, but this allows people who cannot get to a [physical] meeting to still attend,” Hewitt said.
Some club members are brand new to the hobby, others have been at it a while, and both levels of interest are welcome.
New members, Staffa-Wright said, are always encouraged to get involved.
See the Grand Strand Amateur Astronomy Club’s Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org for information about the May 14 meeting which will introduce video astronomy.
Video astronomy, Hewitt explained, “is between taking pictures and physically observing.
Virtual observing, which Hewitt said involves a minimum of equipment, involves hooking up a camera to a telescope and sharing the images.
“This isn’t a group of professional astronomers who sit around talking about obscure mathematical concepts,” Hewitt said. “It’s about sharing a passion for astronomy and helping people get into the hobby.”
That passion may be simply looking at and appreciating the night sky. For others, it’s learning to photograph that sky.
“It gives people the chance to share their experiences and to listen to engaging speakers,” he said.
Recent speakers include CCU’s physics professor and associate dean of the Honors College Louis Keiner, and Horry-Georgetown Technical College’s postdoctoral research scientist Patricia Craig.
Keiner has been an astro-photographer for several years, and shared some of his techniques at a recent meeting.
“This isn’t the best spot in the world for astro-photography because of the clouds and the pollution,” he said. “That makes it difficult to get some of the more spectacular photographs you see in magazines and on the internet. But there are techniques you can use to do the best you can in this area.”
Hewitt, a professional astronomer, has a master’s degree in astronomy and volunteers as a Solar System Ambassador with NASA.
Staffa-Wright, an Ocean Bay Middle School science teacher, and also a Solar System Ambassador volunteer for NASA, helped pilot the first distance-learning telescope in the state to be used in classrooms.
She also attended the launches of the Parker Solar Probe in August 2018 and the SpaceX CRS18 at Kennedy Space Center in July 2019.
When the new school year starts, Staffa-Wright plans to start an Astro-stem Club for middle schoolers.
Astronomy, Hewitt said, “has always been a gateway to the sciences. People are curious about what’s out there. It strikes a chord, even with people who generally aren’t interested in science.
“Anyone can look at the night sky and wonder what’s going on and say, ‘That’s beautiful, and I’d like to know more.’ “
Even the people who’ve been amateur astronomers for a long time are still learning, Hewitt said.
“Astronomy is always changing. Digital camera technology is so good now that as an amateur, you can produce photos that would rival a professional’s 15 or 20 years ago.”
Equipment is also less expensive that it used to be, he said, and with the right equipment, it can provide “super fantastic images.”
Keiner said he thinks people will always be interested in astronomy.
“Humans have changed a lot over the last million or so years, but our interest in astronomy remains constant,” he said.
“From the earliest times, people would look at the sky with wonder and be in awe of the beauty.
“As our equipment has gotten better, we can see farther and explain more things. But that hasn’t changed the mystery and the enthusiasm people have looking at the stars.
“Astro-photography is something anyone can do to bring home the beauty of the night sky and share it with other people.”