Randy Peterson can’t remember the moment he first looked up at the sky with wonder, but he does remember being intrigued by astronomy most of his life.
“When I was in grade school, I cut out planets from paper,” says Peterson, who lives in Scottsdale. “I made them to their relative size and hung them up in my room. I was probably in third or fourth grade.”
A few years later, on a trip to the Midwest to see an uncle who was a university professor there, he remembers visiting an observatory and getting his first look at the moon through a telescope. “I could see all the details on the surface. That’s when I really got interested,” he says.
Today, Peterson, now in his late 50s, shares his love of the sky with hundreds as a member of the East Valley Astronomy Club.
The club has been around for 20 years and has about 200 members, according to club president Steven Aggas. Members get together a few times a month to gaze at the skies, hear lectures from experts and plan events.
But perhaps what Peterson enjoys the most is the club’s monthly Public Star Party, when Valley residents are invited to use members’ telescopes to get their first glimpses into the heavens.
“It’s a good place for people who know just a little about the sky, or are interested in knowing a little bit, to come and ask us questions,” he says. “In the last few months, we’ve had a couple hundred people show up.”
The event is tailored to families, with step stools and chairs ready to give the smallest visitors the boost they need to use the telescopes.
Tonight, provided it’s not too cloudy and it doesn’t rain (there’s a chance of thunderstorms in the Valley), participants will be able to view Jupiter and Uranus by using the club’s equipment. In addition, they will see some of the constellations they may be familiar with, but unable to find on their own among the millions of other visible stars.
Peterson says some people think you need to buy expensive telescopes in order to support an astronomy hobby. But he says using your eyes, perhaps some binoculars and the equipment provided at the star parties, people can start familiarizing themselves with the night sky.
He’s enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge of the stars and planets, which is why he’s remained a member of the club for so long. This fall, the club plans to offer more programming at an observatory being built at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, which he hopes will help the club educate even more people about Arizona’s night sky.
Club members say astronomy is an activity the family can do together, although sometimes one member is more enthusiastic than others.
“Most of us are semi-fanatics about astronomy,” says Peterson. “But our wives or kids aren’t always as interested.”
Peterson and his son, Russell, 23, travel together once a year to see the stars at a public party at the Grand Canyon and also travel to California for a convention of amateur astronomers. “I think he’s interested in astronomy now because I dragged him along for so many years,” he says.
A view of the night sky
Want to use our chart to tonight’s sky? Consider this illustration the inside lining of a dome: What’s at the very center of the circle is straight up, and the four major directions help orient the sides. (West is to the right on our chart because the viewer is facing south.)
East Valley Astronomy Club
What: Monthly public star party When: 8 p.m. today. Will be rescheduled in event of rain Where: East parking lot at Maricopa County’s Southeast Regional Library, 775 N. Greenfield Road, Gilbert Cost: Free Information: (480) 251-0658 or www.eastvalleyastronomy.org