Astronomy's New Stars

Thanks to new technology, backyard stargazers have traveled light-years of late to join professionals in mapping the heavens

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O’Meara drawing. He would peer at length through the eyepiece, then down at his sketch pad and draw a line or two, then return to the eyepiece. It was the sort of work astronomers did generations ago, when observing could mean spending a night making one drawing of one planet. O’Meara likes to describe himself as “a 19th-century observer in the 21st century,” and in meeting him I hoped to better understand how someone who works the old-fashioned way, relying on his eye at the telescope rather than a camera or a CCD, had been able to pull off some of the most impressive observing feats of his time.

While still a teenager, O’Meara saw and mapped radial “spokes” on Saturn’s rings that professional astronomers dismissed as illusory—until Voyager reached Saturn and confirmed that the spokes were real. He determined the rotation rate of the planet Uranus, obtaining a value wildly at variance with those produced by professionals with larger telescopes and sophisticated detectors, and proved to be right about that too. He was the first human to see Halley’s comet on its 1985 return, a feat he accomplished using a 24-inch telescope at an altitude of 14,000 feet while breathing bottled oxygen.

After nearly an hour, O’Meara came down the ladder and made a gift of his drawing to Tippy, who introduced us. Clear-eyed, fit, and handsome, with black hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and a wide smile, O’Meara was dressed in a billowing white shirt and black peg pants. We repaired to the red-lit canteen for a cup of coffee and a talk.

Steve told me that he’d grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of a lobster fisherman, and that his first childhood memory was of sitting in his mother’s lap and watching the ruddy lunar eclipse of 1960. “From the very beginning I had an affinity with the sky,” he said. “I just loved starlight.” When he was about 6 years old he cut out a planisphere— a flat oval sky map—from the back of a box of cornflakes, and with it learned the constellations. “Even the tough kids in the neighborhood would ask me questions about the sky,” he recalled. “The sky produced a wonderment in them. I believe that if inner-city kids had the opportunity to see the real night sky, they could believe in something greater than themselves—something that they can’t touch, control or destroy.”

When O’Meara was about 14 years old he was taken to a public night at Harvard College Observatory, where he waited in line for a look through its venerable Clark nine-inch refractor. “Nothing happened for a long time,” he recalled. “Eventually people started wandering off, discouraged. The next thing I knew I was inside the dome. I could hear a whirring sound and see the telescope pointing up at the stars, and a poor guy down there at the eyepiece—searching, searching—and he was sweating. I realized that he was trying to find the Andromeda galaxy. I asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’

“‘A galaxy far away.’ “

I waited a few minutes, then asked, ‘Is it Andromeda?’ There was a silence, and finally he said, ‘Yeah, but it’s difficult to get, very complicated.’

“‘Can I try?’

“‘Oh, no, it’s a very sophisticated instrument.’

“I said, ‘You know, nobody’s behind me. I can get it for you in two seconds.’ I got it in the field of view.


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