Amateur Astronomers Invite the Public to Informal Viewings

The view from Griffith Observatory sparkles whether you look up or down.
PHOTO BY ANTHONY COOK

Just a few miles from Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip, Bob Magee peers through a lens, searching for stars.

With names like Vega, Alcor and Becrux, these stars can't be found in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. When Magee looks for his stars, he looks up at the night sky.

"I come up here for the wow factor, really," Magee says. "There's so much more out there than just the city."

Magee is one of about two-dozen people who bring their high-powered telescopes to the Griffith Park Observatory every month. The amateur astronomers focus their telescopes on different parts of the night sky and invite everyone to come take a look. Telescope or not, the views are insane.

"We love the sky — we like to share it," telescope owner Pam Thompson says. "It's the hobby that never sleeps. It's exciting."

On a clear night, sometimes 1,000 people show up to the Public Star Party, which has the feel of a drive-in movie or an evening at Barnsdall Art Park. Parents bring picnics, blankets and those backpack-leashes for their toddlers (it's dark, after all). Teenagers hold hands and laugh loudly as they move from telescope to telescope. One older couple grows tired of looking up. They whisper, giggle and sneak away from the crowd. Good thing no one points a telescope in their direction.

Some take the stargazing more seriously.

Nine-year-old Connor Bramel is the type of kid astronomers hope will come. Connor has studied space in school. His dad, Chris, drove him up from Tustin to get a glimpse of the universe; they stood in line for about 45 minutes to see the biggest telescope featured at the Public Star Party. It's known as the "26-incher" (in reference to its diameter) and was donated to the group by NASA. It was supposed to be launched into space but never actually made it.

"It was cool to see Jupiter," Connor says with a smile. "It's one of the biggest planets out there. I saw the moons around it, too."

The line to see Thompson's and Magee's telescopes moves more quickly. Hersgfocuses on the moon, while his zooms in on the Orion Nebula, one of his favorite star systems.

Magee's interest in the night sky started when he worked for NASA in the 1990s. He oversaw repairs to engines that later propelled astronauts into space.

"I figured I should know where I was sending the crew," Magee says. "That's how I got interested in planets and stars and the moon. I wanted to see what they see."

Thompson, a Monrovia High School science teacher, is an accidental astronomy buff. About 15 years ago, she saw a fuzzy patch in the sky and took out her binoculars. Her curiosity eventually led her to buy a telescope.

She now looks through it three or four times a week and attends lectures to stay up-to-date. She loves to point her telescope at the moon but really just enjoys getting outside and feeling connected to the universe.

"I think we've lost something" by living in the city, Thompson says. She finds it remarkable "to be able to see the sky that our ancestors had."

The night sky is just as vibrant over Hollywood as it is in Kansas. The problem is we can't see it. Lights shine on movie stars here, competing with the twinkle of other heavenly bodies. For city dwellers, the Public Star Party might be the only way to catch Mother Nature's biggest show.

Well, almost.

"One of my biggest tips is to run outside after an earthquake," Thompson says. "Even if it's just a small one, chances are the lights will go out across the area. Look up and you'll see things you've never seen. ... It's overpowering to go from a light sky to a dark sky."

If you don't know what you're looking at, just ask.

"I love to tell people that what they are looking at is light-years away or is the creation of a new star system," Magee says. "They are amazed, and it's fun to share that."

The next Public Star Party is March 12 at the Griffith Park Observatory. It starts at

2 p.m. and goes until 10. Parking is limited, so wear good walking shoes. griffith observatory.org/pstarparties.html.


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