Seeing Stars: Astronomy in the 863
By Meredith Jean Morris
When Cleveland Carter was 14 years old, his mother gave him a telescope for his birthday.
“One look through that telescope, and I was hooked,” says Carter, who has been gazing at the stars on and off for the past 54 years. “It’s been something I’ve studied on my own and just had an interest in since then.”
Carter is part of a group of Polk County residents who gather monthly for astronomy nights. At these events, seasoned stargazers set up their telescopes and share their passion with all who attend. The group is applying for nonprofit status as the Imperial Polk Astronomical Society.
The group started about four years ago, Carter says, when he met up with another amateur astronomer at the Circle B Bar Reserve.
“He studied astronomy on a regular basis, and I started meeting up with him at different parks around the county,” Carter says.
In addition to stargazing at Circle B, the group meets at Mackay Gardens and Lakeside Preserve in Lake Alfred, and at Colt Creek State Park north of Lakeland.
Four years after getting monthly events started, Carter says the astronomy nights average about 20 to 40 people in attendance.
“Depending on the weather and the time of year, we’ve had as few as five and as many as 105,” Carter says of the events that start at 7 p.m.
Each night begins with a 45-minute presentation about a different astronomical topic – ranging from nebulas, to different types of stars, to galaxies.
“We’ve talked about everything from the solar system and the sun to the planets,” Carter says. “Whatever people find interesting, that’s what we talk about. We make it basic so kids understand it. They love to ask questions, more so than the adults do. There was one time, I spent most of the meeting going back and forth answering questions with a 10 year old. It was great.”
After the presentation, the telescopes are set up and the gazing begins.
“If there’s a lot of good, interesting stuff, we’ll go until about 9:30 (p.m.),” Carter says. “Every once in a while, they have to throw us out.”
Ken Webb, a physics teacher at Bartow High School’s International Baccalaureate program, says he enjoys the stargazing events because of a passion for taking photos of space through the telescope.
Like Carter, he, too, became interested in astronomy as a young boy.
“In the early 1980s, when I was 8 or 9 years old, in the early days of the space shuttle program, there was a picture in the newspaper of Saturn that was taken by Voyager,” Webb says. “There was a book in the library about the planets that I checked out, and then my grandmother gave me ‘Astronomy Magazine’ as a surprise in April 1982. The bug bit every hard back then, and has slowly grown since.”
While Webb says he does most of his stargazing in his backyard, he enjoys getting together with the Imperial Polk Astronomical Society to share ideas, tips and interests with others.
“It’s nice to say ‘I’ve read this…’ or to see telescopes of different types or even telescopes you might not be able to afford,” he says. “The other photographer folks get together and share pictures.”
Going to an event like the astronomy night is also a good time for beginners to get advice, Webb says.
“There will be a good selection of scopes there to look through, you’ll have people with years of experience, and they can give you a lot of decent advice,” he says.
For example, if someone is more interested in looking at the moon, versus stars or nebulas, an experienced stargazer could give advice on the right telescope for the job, Webb says.
“I think when the visitors start looking through the telescopes, the bug might bite them, just like it did for me,” Webb says. “There’s a whole new world above our heads. On earth we’re limited to what we can see. It’s almost like you’re a kind of pioneer. You have to wonder: How many other people are looking at what I’m looking at here in this same galaxy?
“Some people enjoy it for the exploration of it; others, for the technology; and other people like it for the relaxation, just sitting under the sky. It means different things to different people.”
Winter Haven astronomer Paul Crate says he enjoys stargazing because of the consistency and contemplation of it.
“The stars we look at are the same as they were 53 years ago,” says Crate, whose parents bought him his first telescope when he was 10 years old. “It really takes you out of all the problems in the world, and for me, it shows the absolute certainty of God.”
For someone looking to get involved with astronomy and find their own reasons to gaze to the heavens, Crate recommends first buying a good pair of binoculars.
“Start that way, and wait a while to see if the interest stays,” he says. “If it doesn’t, you’ll have some binoculars you can use for sporting events and bird watching. There’s little you can do with an astronomical telescope if you don’t enjoy stargazing. After you find out what turns you on about astronomy, you can decide what kind of telescope to buy.”
Crate also recommends finding out where other star parties or stargazing events are being held.
“There are tons of events out there, and most of us are willing to let you look through our scopes,” he says.
After getting hooked on stargazing, there are endless sights to see, Webb adds. However, there is one sight he’s still hoping to catch a glimpse of in the night sky.
“I’ve never seen a flying saucer,” he says. “Some of the guys say they have, but not once have I seen a U.F.O.”
For details on Imperial Polk Astronomical Society astronomy nights, contact Cleveland Carter at email@example.com.