Skip to main content

reprinted from the September 1987 GuideStar 

Perhaps one reason I was picked as historian, is that I tend to dwell a lot on the past. I still think of my early years as an amateur astronomer as the “good old days”. The chief difference between, say 1960 and now, is that I could observe a number of Messier objects from my yard, and yet I lived only a quarter mile from the University of St. Thomas. For observing or photographing the Milky Way, I would spend the night at my parents’ home, only a couple of miles west of Memorial Park. Nowadays, to go anywhere where one can observe deep sky objects, requires that two or three hours be spent travelling to and from the observing site.

But, Let’s take a look into the next century. No this article is not going to be a “downer” but an imaginary view of what might be possible in the future. WARNING: This article is perhaps outrageously speculative, and will not appeal to the hard-bitten realist. But, for those who like to dream, dream along with me.

It is the summer of 2005 and, in spite of the serious light pollution, there is widespread interest in astronomy and (especially) space. Professional astronomers are now using several medium-sized telescopes on the moon, while awaiting completion of two large multi-mirror telescopes to be located near the east and west lunar limbs respectively. No, astronomers do not travel to the moon to observe but operate these instruments from their labs by remote control. This is an outgrowth of the way spacecraft were operated to photograph during the late Twentieth Century.

With these techniques being perfected, amateur astronomical societies are now building telescopes in remote locations, and operating them from their society’s “clubhouses”, usually in a central location. The golden anniversary of the Metropolitan Houston Astronomical Society, (formerly known as the Houston Amateur Astronomy Club and later, the Houston Astronomical Society), is approaching and everybody is excited especially since the society has just acquired, thanks to the generosity of a wealthy benefactor, a forty-inch reflector, which is being installed on the slopes of Mauna Kea. This is the last totally unpolluted observing site in the United States. And it was only through an agreement worked out with developers that, by allowing them to have all of Oahu, the “big island” was preserved from commercial development.

Access to the new telescope will be by reserving time, as is customary with most observatories. There will be little “real time” observing, however, since midnight in Hawaii occurs at 4AM Houston time. So, astronomers program the computer inserting one’s personal identification code and, at the allotted time, the instrument records the image, just as TV viewers recorded programs on VCRs twenty years earlier. Then, at the astronomer’s leisure, the image is processed to bring out details, something only professionals did during the Twentieth Century.

Activities include comet hunting, which seems less romantic now, since an area of the sky is simply “photographed” with an image device (that makes the first CCD look like a toy) and the computer compares previous exposures of that area and reports any anomalies. With this technique amateurs have discovered numerous asteroids and even faint novae.

But, there are still those amateurs who like to gaze up into the firmament, just for pure inspiration. For them, there is the Texas Star Party, now in its third decade. No longer do they bring sophisticated telescopes but rather Dobsonians, RFTs and just plain old-fashioned binoculars. In today’s complex world, there is nothing that refreshes the soul like viewing the constellations at low power, or even with the naked eye. This is something that our technological world has nearly robbed us of.

This article was typed by me as written with no changes to the original text. Any typos introduced during the typing process are my doing. Many long-time members of the HAS will remember Leland, newer members may not.  He continued to attend HAS meetings at the University of Houston and participate in the activities of the organization until his passing.

This issue of the GuideStar (9/1987) also includes an Observatory Corner article and other items of interest to current HAS members. So, more to come.

Clear Skies to all;

Bill Pellerin, former GuideStar editor, former HAS President.