Colorado universe of amateur astronomers expanding rapidly

Our solar system has been out there for 4.6 billion years, but it seems more people than ever are becoming seduced by its beauty and mystery.

Predictable celestial events such as lunar eclipses, meteor showers, rare planetary phenomena and so-called “super moons” are attracting keen interest from a growing number of amateur astronomers. Stores that sell telescopes and astronomy accessories have been doing booming business since the pandemic. Membership in the Denver Astronomical Society has increased nearly 60% over the past four to five years, according to past president Ron Hranac.

Meanwhile space exploration is making news. Last month the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope dazzled earthlings. Last year, NASA’s fifth robotic rover on Mars began sending new pictures from the red planet. Hardly a week goes by without one or more launches from the Kennedy Space Center.

At the end of the month, NASA is scheduled to launch Artemis 1, the most powerful rocket ever built. That un-crewed test flight will travel to the moon and back, marking the first step towards what NASA intends to be a sustained human presence there.

“Because we are in this golden era of lots of space exploration, both with space telescopes and planetary missions, I think that drives a lot of interest,” said John Keller, director of the Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado, who got his first telescope when he was 10 years old. “There’s always been interest in the sky, for thousands and tens of thousands of years. The ways people are accessing it continue to evolve.”

When a rare conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn occurred just before Christmas in 2020 — an 800-year event — the phone at the Mile High Astronomy telescope store went “off the hook,” according to employee Zachary Singer. Sales were already booming because of the pandemic.

“We had a real supply problem, not just because suppliers were trying to make telescopes under COVID, but demand had just gone through the roof because people were isolating,” Singer said. “People were getting stimulus checks and they were saving money because they weren’t commuting to work. If you were still working, you were saving piles of money, you were staying at home and you wanted to be away from everybody else. What’s a good solo thing to do?”

Perhaps it wasn’t merely for a pastime, though. Perhaps contemplating the infinite vastness of space was comforting while a microscopic virus was turning our world upside down.

“Shops like Mile High Astronomy and pretty much every other telescope dealer in the US had an incredible interest in telescopes and binoculars,” Hranac said, “and they’re still going crazy.”

The MegaStar projector in the Fiske ...

Fiske Planetarium, University of Colorado

The MegaStar projector in the Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado is capable of depicting 10 million stars and the Milky Way. The planetarium presents multiple shows weekly, Thursdays through Sundays.

There are many ways novice astronomers can learn about the heavens and how to enjoy them. Astronomy aficionados recommend two magazine websites, Astronomy and Sky & Telescope, both of which inform readers on how to enjoy upcoming celestial events. The Denver Astronomical Society has a very informative page on its website offering advice on how to become an amateur astronomer.

At CU, the Fiske Planetarium offers 10-12 shows and lectures weekly, Thursday through Sunday. On most Friday nights there are public viewing nights at the adjacent Sommers-Bausch Observatory, where the public can look through a huge 24-inch telescope and two 20-inch scopes (those dimensions indicate the diameter of the aperture, not the length of the telescope). At those events, graduate students and other faculty members are available to provide information and insight.