The sun is starting to set as we drive down the dirt road deep into Stinchfield Woods north of Dexter to U-M’s Peach Mountain Observatory. My eleven-year-old son and I have come for a closer look at the night sky with the University Lowbrow Astronomers—a club of amateur astronomy enthusiasts that meets monthly and hosts open houses twice a month for the public.
We’d made the trek to the mountain the previous week for an open house, but clouds rolled in just before dusk and dashed our hopes. That’s the way it often goes for open houses, which are scheduled on the Saturdays immediately before and after new moons (when the sky is darkest). Mark Deprest, a fifteen-year club member and truck dispatcher, says visual astronomers in Michigan have to be “eternal optimists” because weather conditions often thwart their efforts. This is why the U-M—which owns the land and still operates a radio telescope here—now conducts most of its optical astronomy research in the driest place on earth, Chile’s Atacama desert.
But on this night on Peach Mountain, a crescent moon hangs in a clear sky. Several club members are setting up telescopes in an open field. One is Krishna Rao, a U-M physician and a four-year member who owns three telescopes—one accompanied him on a backpacking trip through the Himalayas. He offers us a glimpse of the moon’s craters through his eight-inch scope.
Club vice president Jim Forrester leads us a couple hundred yards down a path lit only by stars and fireflies. Forrester says his interest in astronomy was sparked as a kid by U.S. space missions. “I’m a child of the Apollo,” he says. That passion has followed him all the way to retirement, and he now coordinates open houses for the club. As the walking path empties out onto a grassy area, we find a half-dozen more club members who have set up their telescopes—some with fancy computer tracking devices.
Don Fohey invites us to gaze at Albireo. To the naked eye it appears to be a single star, but a look through the scope reveals two stars—a brilliant yellow primary star and its sapphire blue companion. Fohey jokes that it’s a favorite among U-M fans because of its colors. Mike Radwick trains his telescope on Saturn and its moons. It’s the first time we’ve seen the ringed planet through a telescope, and it seems too perfect to be real—like someone slipped a photo slide into the viewfinder. My son deems it “the coolest thing” he’s seen all night.
Members use a hand crank to open the roof of a concrete block building. Inside is U-M’s twenty-four-inch McMath telescope from the late 1930s. Formerly used by U-M astronomers, it’s now maintained by the club. As they change its lenses and shift the scope’s position, they offer us different views of the moon and Saturn. “Want to see more than half a million stars?” asks club president Charlie Nielsen with a wide grin. The former Scio Township supervisor ushers us over to the eyepiece for a look at a globular cluster.
We walk back to the large field where Deprest is tinkering with his telescope. He’s pulling an all-nighter and hopes to view five comets. So far, he’s one-fifth of the way to his goal. It’s going on midnight as we turn to walk back to our car. Out of the darkness we hear a woman shout, “I found it! I found it!” It’s Amy Cantu, an AADL librarian and budding astronomer, who says she’s located M92—one of the brightest globular clusters visible from the northern hemisphere. How can we leave now? We make our way over to Cantu’s telescope for an up-close look at the thirteen-billion-year-old star cluster 26,000 light years away—a glowing light surrounded by dazzling glitter.