By Carolyn Barbre
You hear the buzz, that Springville has become a mecca for amateur astronomers. It now has five observatories, and a sixth will soon be built.
It is home to a small but active club called the Tule River Amateur Astronomers.
Then there is a public notice that the public is invited to attend a "Star Party." It sounds enchanting. As the sun sinks into the west you head up the mountain. After seven miles of winding up Balch Park Road, the last mile a rutted dirt drive, it is dark. You find your way to the Starhome Observatory, about 100 feet from the end of the driveway, climb the stairs and step into a dark room, lit only by a few night-lights plugged into sockets. Fittingly "Country Roads" by John Denver plays low on the stereo. Voices are talking in the dark. You feel a chair as much as see it, and in a small room darker than a planetarium show, you begin to see the outlines of about a dozen people. Then you realize the roof is missing and that is the night sky above.
But you can't see a gazillion stars, partly because there is a rare, for mid June, cloud overcast and partly because the lights from Porterville are bright enough to put a pretty good glow on the horizon.
There are a couple of other hitches for a journalist - it's difficult to take notes when you can't see what you are writing and it's strange to try and interview people you really don't know when you are sitting beside them and can't see their faces.
Starhome Observatory is a private facility built by and operated by John Sanford. "The observatory is a two story building with a partial sliding roof, and houses two telescopes, a C-14 on Titan (Losmandy) mount, and an Astrophysics 6-inch f/9 refractor. The observatory is located on a small ridge affording good seeing most of the time. The altitude is approximately 2,230 feet above sea level. Climate is good, with clear nights from May through November and about one third of the time in winter months," it says on the Starhome website at www.astrospringville.org/StarhomeObservatory.
Sanford has been into amateur astronomy since he was a child. The former photography teacher at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa was looking forward to dedicating himself to his hobby upon retirement. For more than 30 years he, along with 800 members of the Orange County Astronomers, would commute 100 miles just to get a decent look at the night sky.
"The main problem down there is light pollution. It makes the sky unusable for astronomy," he said in an earlier phone interview. So when he was getting ready to retire, back in 1998, he started looking for dark places, including Hawaii, Arizona and Mexico.
"I settled on Springville for several reasons," he said. "One was that it is relatively close to big cities, for convenience. It has good sky, it's pretty dark here still. And the reasonable real estate [unlike Hawaii]." Also he knew David and Billie Chandler, amateur astronomers who moved to Springville in 1996.
Sanford moved to the mountains 160 plus miles north of Los Angeles. He finished his observatory in July 2001 and said he uses it every few nights, "or every night that I can." He does a lot of observing for various organizations such as the American Association of Variable Star Observers in Boston and ALPO, the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. "I'm trying to do some useful science as well as public education."
Sanford has classes from Porterville College come to the observatory, and even some grade classes. He said during Mars Week last fall he had about 300 people come just to look at Mars.
Amateur astronomers do a lot of the routine observing that the professional don't have time for, Sanford said. "For example, following a variable star for a whole year, an amateur astronomer can go out there every night for a half hour and send his reports in to that Boston-based group. They have literally hundreds of thousands of observations a year that they log and put in their data base." He said then the professionals use the data for research. Sanford said one-fourth to one-third of new comets are discovered by amateurs, even though big observatories are photographing the whole sky.
But his biggest campaign is against light pollution. He estimated that the the light level in Porterville and the rest of the Valley has gone up about 50 percent in the five years he has been up here. "When we had comets in the Western sky, I would get yellow lighting in background, mostly from Porterville. He said the new Home Depot and the Wal-Mart Distribution Center have bad lighting that throws half the beams directly up in the sky, causing light pollution.
These are easily solved problems. Sanford said he isn't against lights, just against leakage or inefficient lighting, lights pointed sideways and point up instead of down. There is a worldwide organization called the International Dark Sky Association that now has about 10,000 members. Sanford said it is not only amateur and professional astronomers, but also people in the lighting industry. For instance, Los Angeles has replaced about 80 percent of its street lighting with full cutoff fixtures that do not allow any light to go upward. Sanford said the next round of building codes from the state will include "a very good definition of light pollution." He said several states have passed lighting regulations statewide. Arizona was one of the first because the Kitt Peak National Observatory is located there.
"It's largely a question of education, because most people would hold lights down, and businesses in general, if they realized it keeps electric bills down. A lot of governments are saving millions a year by putting better fixtures in and individual businesses can do the same." He said if people went up to Blue Ridge and looked down, they would see the towns are not obvious as one might think. "You don't see Porterville or Hanford with darkness around, but a sea of light."
Back at the Star Party, there is talk of someone spotting a UFO (turned out it was a candle balloon), astroids (a big one would mess up life on earth), birthday stars (my birthday star is Eta in the constellation Serpens) and satellites passing overhead.
Sanford adjusts the telescope to view a particular star pattern, then tells the attendees what they are seeing as they cue up to look through the telescope. The night was no doubt most magical for the several children present, who got to step on a little step latter and look through the grand telescope to the heavens. Hopefully by the time they grow up, they will have night skies dark enough for everyone to enjoy an unadulterated view of the stars.