Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society observes star struck

By Nick Fawell

Halley’s Comet is only seen from Earth once every 76 years. Its appearance in the mid-’80s helped inspire Champaign resident David Leake to start an astronomical society. Eighteen years later, the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society (CUAS) is a staple in the community.

Leake, one of the five board members of the society, said another reason for starting the club and building their own observatory just southwest of Champaign was that townspeople wanted a more secluded and easily accessible location than the observatory on the south end of the Quad.

Leake explained, however, that the purpose of starting the CUAS and building a new observatory was not to compete with the University but rather to work with them. The CUAS shares several members with the University of Illinois Astronomical Society (UIAS) and has coordinated events with them as well. During the summer of 2003, the CUAS and UIAS teamed up for an event celebrating Mars being the closest to Earth in 17 years.

“Mars got really close last year,” said Jeff Bryant, the president of CUAS. “It has a slower orbit than the Earth and every 17 years we (Earth) kind of catch up to Mars … so it was at its closest point to Earth.”

For Bryant, educating the general public about astronomy is one of the most enjoyable parts of the club.

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    “People often have misconceptions because they are used to seeing things through the news,” Bryant said. “This (the society) gives them the chance to see what it really looks like.”

    The CUAS holds two different types of observing sessions at their observatory. They hold a monthly open house, which is scheduled with the moon phase, where the general public can come to observe stars, constellations and phases of the moon, Leake said. They also hold sessions for CUAS members where members can bring their own instruments and are allowed more freedom to observe what they please. The CUAS is also in the process of planning “star parties,” which would be public observing sessions on a larger scale with vendors coming in as well.

    Earlier this year, the society planned an event around the Venus transit, which is where Venus crosses in front of the sun. As it passes in front of the Sun it looks like a small disc, Bryant said.

    “In the past, this was actually used to help judge distances in the solar system,” he said. “And when that happened, no one alive had ever seen that before.

    Phil Wall, treasurer of CUAS, said he really enjoys the chance to view the moon and planets up close and said there is always more to learn, even for members.

    “I’m still learning the constellations and learning where this stuff is,” Wall said.

    Becoming a member is as simple as paying a yearly fee of fifteen dollars.

    “It doesn’t take a lot of money,” Wall said. “The club has telescopes you can use … and we really enjoy showing the sky to normal people.”

    Although they share a passion for astronomy, none of the members of CUAS are professional astronomers. Bryant said members consist of people from all walks of life.

    “All the members of our club are from very diverse backgrounds,” Bryant said. “We have some people that are farmers, mechanical engineers, teachers, and we have some people who just enjoy astronomy.”

    Bryant said one of his favorite astronomical phenomena to observe is galaxies and binary star systems, which is where two stars orbit one another.

    Leake, who has been involved with astronomy since the 5th grade, said the most interesting part for him is that it is not just concerned with what is occurring on Earth but rather what is occurring everywhere in the solar system.

    “It’s the bigger picture of things,” Leake said. “It’s too easy to focus on just the Earth and the smaller things.”