A dazzling day greeted S&T Observing Editor Diana Hannikainen when she attended the Stellafane Convention this past August, but it was the dome of night sky that truly sparkled.
Stellafane. I can’t stop saying the word. Stellafane. From the Latin stella, or star, and fanum, shrine or temple, the Stellafane Convention lives up to its name — it’s a veritable congregation of passionate devotees of amateur telescope-making and astronomy.
A few weeks ago, I attended the 83rd Stellafane Convention. I had just completed one full year at Sky & Telescope, when the opportunity arose for me to head into the verdant hills of Vermont and join the passionate crowds of telescope-makers and amateur astronomers.
After driving up a rather steep dirt road, I was greeted by an impossibly pink banner suspended from the green boughs with the words “Welcome to Stellafane.” I had arrived in the middle of the day and the Sun was positively blazing. I parked the car, affixed the (pink) name badge to my lapel, and sauntered off to explore. I wandered over to the observing field right by the McGregor Observatory, where a copse of telescopes stood lovingly wrapped in their protective covers, seemingly bristling with the anticipation of upcoming nighttime action. Dotting the outer edges of the field were colorful tents, each containing a snoozing astronomer or two recuperating after a long night of observing, or so I imagined. It all looked so cozy that I regretted not having made arrangements to camp overnight.
The top of the hill is a delightful place. Not only does one find the (very pink!) Clubhouse, but you can also visit the Porter Turret Telescope with its quirky design — the primary mirror is cradled in a boom outside the dome.
This year, a focal point was the inauguration ceremony of the Andrew E. Simoni Observatory that houses the functioning Cook Spectrohelioscope. It was a very moving event, with family members recollecting the passion Andrew Simoni had for amateur astronomy with personal anecdotes, and the grandson of George Ellery Hale, Simon Hale, speaking. The cutting of the (pink) ribbon was carried out by three generations of Simonis: Andrew’s son, his granddaughter, and great-granddaughter.
As the afternoon dissolved into dusk and people started coming back from dinner, the grounds started buzzing. Coverings were swept off scopes, baring their spindly bodies to the elements, and star charts were pulled out, both in paper version and on devices. As dusk deepened, the observing field was transformed into a hive of activity. Observers chattered to one another, scopes were pointed in different directions, and a steady stream of people continued to arrive. The McGregor telescope was aimed at Jupiter, and eager viewers lined up to catch a glimpse of the majestic planet. The night sky was open for observing.
The peak of the Perseids was still two nights away, but several meteors were already gracing the skies above Stellafane. And I kept missing them. How did I know? Well, I knew thanks to the most touching and primal human reaction to witnessing a breathtaking natural phenomenon. I was peering through my binoculars, and probably muttering to myself about something or the other, when a collective gasp of wonderment rippled through the observing crowds. Hundreds of voices swelled together. I thought it was only in cartoons that people actually uttered “Oooh” and “Aaah.” Not so. There were definitely audible Oooh’s and Aaah’s as I vowed to myself under my breath not to miss the next one.
I spent the next quarter-hour scanning the skies, determined not to be distracted. It was so awe-inspiring to be under that immense dome of sky, I wanted to look everywhere at the same time. Just for one second I put the binoculars to my eyes . . . and boom. Oooh’s and Aaah’s resounded into the night. My timing was obviously quite off that evening! I put the binos back into their case so as not to be tempted again, I chatted with several people, reveled in the darkening skies and the gradual emergence of the Milky Way, loved the fact that somebody was playing Pink Floyd’s “Shine on you Crazy Diamond” somewhere in the darkness by their scope, and I wondered which diamond they were focusing on. I was about to go find out, when a meteor veritably sizzled across the sky. And my voice was among those that exclaimed “Oooh” for I, too, had seen it, and I, too, had been overwhelmed by the wondrous beauty of this fleeting phenomenon.