On a cool February evening, people making their way into the North Medford High School auditorium are promised a “spectacular space event.”
The guarantee appears in bold letters on fliers handed out by North Medford students Reyna Kirschel and Sarah Tang. Attendees will be watching a documentary called “HiBal Up,” which chronicles the story of North Medford students who helped NASA document a total solar eclipse by launching camera-laden high-altitude balloons 100,000 feet into the sky.
After the screening, NASA aerospace engineer Roberto Carlino will discuss TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), a telescope intended to track habitable planets deep in space.
It’s just one of many such evenings hosted the third Wednesday of every month, usually at the high school. Anyone is invited to check it out, whether a longtime astral photographer or a complete novice of the sky who just wants to learn more.
“You’ve got quite a spectrum. I really like that,” says club official Colin White. “With this club, I think, it’s a complete mixture. People have got telescopes. People have got thousands of dollars’ worth (of equipment.) People do outreach. People just want to learn. People do astral photography. People just want to look at the moon. And that’s a nice mixture. And that’s what makes it special.”
Unlike new stars that form in cloud-laden nebulae, Southern Oregon Skywatchers’ origins didn’t happen in a vacuum.
It began with Dave Bloomsness and Jessica Vineyard in the mid-’90s. Both were at the annual Oregon Star Party — where attendees catch clear glimpses of the night sky in the Ochoco Mountains east of Prineville — and Vineyard brought it up.
“(Jessica) said, ‘I just moved to Ashland; I’m going to start an astronomy club,’ ” Bloomsness says. “I had been thinking about it for a while.”
Bloomsness, who also lived in Ashland, missed the first meeting but showed up for the second. He’s been involved in some capacity ever since. They met at Vineyard’s home, then switched the location to the Ashland Springs Hotel (called the Mark Antony at the time), and also sometimes met at the log cabin in Lithia Park. ScienceWorks was also a sometimes landing spot for the monthly meetings.
Vineyard eventually stepped down, but Bloomsness stayed aboard.
At one point, the meeting location switched to Medford, which was a more convenient city for most, as many meeting attendees lived there, while others lived in Grants Pass. But even so, the locales around town continued to vary. Enter the North Medford High School planetarium.
The club first held meetings there annually. Planetarium Director Robert Black suggested more.
“I wanted to start picking it up. Two, three, four meetings,” Black says. “Now, basically, we do nine or 10 a year in the planetarium.”
Now it’s a permanent meeting space Black is happy to provide.
“Since these guys have supported me so much with my projects, I feel like I should support them, give them a home,” Black says. “So the planetarium is the Southern Oregon Skywatchers’ home.”
Meetings at this now-established star base are made up of a few basic components.
“What’s up” covers current events, including upcoming meteor showers, planets, comets, eclipses or other eye-catching space scenery that will soon be visible. A few meeting attendees may also share personal news related to the astronomy hobby.
“They might bring a book they’ve read, or a new piece of equipment,” says club official Sean Curry. “We try to get everybody personally involved. ‘Here’s what I’m doing.’ ”
One or two main speakers follow, typically one with a more scientific focus, Curry adds.
“We try to cover quite a bit of ground,” he says. “People can be very beginning observers up to astral photographers.”
It’s also a good showcase for Black’s astronomy students working on graduation requirements.
“It’s a great place for students to meet the public and actually get some hours toward their senior capstone project,” Black says.
Curry estimates the club has from 30 to 40 members, but astronomy enthusiasts of any age are welcome to attend meetings.
One recent major development is White’s ambassadorship to NASA. White, whose key focus within the club is outreach, says the Solar System Ambassador program is run out of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
“The idea is they give you access to information about their missions,” White says. “What they’re up to. And they give you access to mission scientists. If you want information or literature, they will send it to you. And in return, you agree to do outreach programs to the public.”
To get the full benefit of an astronomy club, you have to get outside sometimes. At night. And look up.
That’s where the club’s star parties come in. The parties are held during the summer at the club’s observing site on Dead Indian Memorial Road at about 5,000 feet in elevation, well away from city lights.
And like the group’s meetings, anyone interested in attending can just show up. No telescope required.
“That’s one thing about amateur astronomers: They’re really friendly, and they love helping people learn and see through their equipment,” Curry says. “So for star parties, you definitely don’t need to have your own telescope.”
Word of mouth about the observation events has proven to have a far reach. Once, a group from India found out about a star party and showed up to check out the interstellar light show.
“It was great. It was a lot of fun,” Bloomsness says. “They were really friendly, and we showed them a bunch of stuff. They actually emailed us later and said that was the best part of their trip.”
Club membership costs $20 per year, according to the group’s website, www.orskywatchers.org. Fees go toward an insurance policy for the star party observing site. The membership also comes with discounts to astronomy-related online stores, a discounted rate on Sky & Telescope magazine, and access to the club’s lending library.
But member or not, anyone interested in looking up at a star-washed canvas of night sky and learning about it is welcome.
“It just catches people’s imagination,” Bloomsness says. “It’s like, ‘That’s really out there?’ ”
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.