Pittsburgh’s Amateur Astronomers share their passion for night sky | TribLIVE.com
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Pittsburgh’s Amateur Astronomers share their passion for night sky

Joyce Hanz
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
The night sky is seen above the Nicolas E. Wagman Observatory during a star party and 90th anniversary celebration of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh at Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park near Russellton.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Visitors get a chance to gaze toward the night sky through a telescope owned by Scott Smith of McCandless at Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park near Russellton.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Scott Smith of McCandless points toward the night sky while teaching visitors about celestial objects at Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park near Russellton.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
The night sky is seen above the main telescope at the Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory during a star party and 90th anniversary celebration of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh in Deer Lakes Park near Russellton.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
The moon is seen through the eyepiece of one of the telescopes during a star party at Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park near Russellton.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Visitors gaze into the eyepiece at the brightly illuminated moon at Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park near Russellton.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Tom Reiland (left), director of Wagman Observatory, watches the sky with binoculars as Seth Rupert, 7, of Apollo, climbs down after looking into one of the telescopes at the moon.

It’s a party with a plethora of stars.

But not the celebrity kind.

Explore the night sky and learn about astronomy at star parties. They are sponsored by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh at its two observatories — Nicholas E. Wagman in Deer Lakes Regional Park (Allegheny County) and Mingo Creek Park (Washington County.)

Star parties commence just before sunset and are usually held from 8:45-11 p.m.

“It’s something that changed my life,” AAAP member and star party organizer Tom Reiland says of astronomy.

Telescopes provided

AAAP members set up a mix of telescopes (basic and advanced) and offer visitors a close-up view of celestial objects such as the moon, the Big Dipper, meteors, planets and stars such as Arcturus and Regulus and more.

With more than 300 members, AAAP is one of the largest astronomy clubs in America.

With a goal of promoting astronomy in Western Pennsylvania, AAAP celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2019. More than 66,000 people have attended star parties since they began in 1987.

Star parties provide an opportunity for students, amateur astronomers and the general public to observe the wonders of the sky in a casual and informative setting. AAAP members are on hand to answer questions and assist during the parties.

Participants don’t need a telescope or any other equipment for a star party. Just dress appropriately for outdoor conditions and bring your curiosity.

Look for telescope-toting amateur astromers setting up on a expansive open meadow. Each observatory feature two large permanent telescopes manned by AAAP members.

He’s a regular

Scott Smith of McCandless bought a used telescope five years ago for about $1,600.

He is a regular at star parties — sharing his telescope, celestial knowledge and love of astronomy with the public.

“It’s a great way to spend a summer evening and I’ll never forget the first time I saw the rings of Saturn. It was amazing and it looks like what you see in the books,” Smith said. ” I love stars, space and astronauts, and a lot of people like to check out the telescopes here on the field too — like a try before you buy. We have up to 30 different telescopes set up on a nice summer night.”

Gazing at the moon through the powerful Brashear Refractor telescope at Wagman at his first star party, Seth Rupert, 7, of Oklahoma Borough, found the experience “cool.”

“I don’t know much about the moon but I liked it,” Rupert says. “I saw craters and it all seemed so up close. I saw the light and dark side of the moon. I liked it.”

Rupert’s mom Angie Dees has attended close to a dozen AAAP star parties. “Astronomy is a budding interest of mine and it puts things in a new perspective. This is a nice family outing,” Dees says.

Jupiter is popular

AAAP member Ryan Walker of Brighton says the biggest request from attendees at star parties involve a popular planet.

“Everyone wants to see Jupiter,” Walker says. “Usually it’s not up because the last few years it’s been up late.”

Walker says his most exciting astronony hobby highlight was almost two years in the making.

“The first time I saw the Andromeda Galaxy was my highlight — that took us two years to find it. We didn’t have a computer to find it and had to locate it manually,” Walker says. “We had to use someone else’s computer. It was mindblowing. It’s just a fuzzball in the telescope eyepiece but knowing you are looking at a neighboring galaxy is something.”

Before you go

Attendees are encouraged to monitor weather conditions before departing for a star party. If the sky is overcast or rain is forecast, consider postponing your visit, says AAAP organizers. Just a few scattered clouds? The star party will go on.

Both observatory locations are handicapped accessible and offer a portable toilet (no running water.)

Food and beverages are not served. Take note alcoholic beverages and smoking are not permitted per county park rules.

Star parties are free (donations accepted at Wagman), open to all ages and parking is free.

Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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