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Earthbound, but ever gazing up

Mike Renner of the K-W chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada is always eager to share his passion for stargazing. [Scott Barber / The Observer]
The great theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking mused, “To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.”

Indeed, astronomy, or, the study of that which exists outside of Earth’s atmosphere, is the oldest of the natural sciences, dating back to antiquity.

Here in the Waterloo Region, those interested in learning more about space and how to operate a telescope are encouraged to join the Kitchener-Waterloo chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for a singular Stargazing 101 events at Conestoga Lake.

“These are opportunities for our members to gather during the summer months when we don’t hold our regular meetings,” organizer Mike Renner said. “It’s an opportunity to show off the skies to the campers and staff at the park. … It’s more aligned with beginners and people who just want to observe.”

It’s a great chance for newcomers to chat with experienced stargazers, to pick up tips on where to look and how to use a telescope, Renner said.
And this time of year there are some great sights to behold.

“Saturn is going to be prominent, which is arguably one of the best items to show anyone,” Renner said. “And in the case of the moon as well – it will be a first quarter moon – there are thousands and thousands of craters and mountains that even a small telescope will reveal. So someone who has never seen the moon through an eyepiece is in for a shock. They won’t believe how much detail they can see. And Saturn, similarly, it is like a (three dimensional) item floating there with its rings on display. Both always elicit the ‘ooh’ and ‘aww’ comments from people.”

The club has some 125 members who meet regularly throughout the year at a private farm not far from Conestoga Lake.

The rural setting is ideal for stargazing, as light pollution in and around urban areas makes it more difficult to view dim objects in space.

“Typically our members don’t have access to nice, dark skies in the city,” Renner said. “Most of us hail from Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge or Guelph, and the skies aren’t very friendly for astronomers in the light polluted cities. So this is a focal point for the summer.”

Renner’s interest in the activity, like so many Baby Boomers, arose during NASA’s Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early ’70s. As a young teen, Renner became enthralled with space after learning about the Apollo 8 mission, which saw the first manned spacecraft leave Earth’s space orbit. Soon after, he had his own telescope and his lifelong passion for astronomy took flight.

“A lot of my peers grew up with the same sort of spark from the space program,” he said. “Now, kids are more in tune with video games than what is happening in space. But we do have a lot of younger members that are joining now, which is great.”

When newcomers check out their meetings, Renner says the most common questions are ‘what can I see? And where should I point my telescope?’”
They can certainly help you with that, and much, much more.

In fact, “if you know where to look, you can see 2.5 million light years with your naked eye,” Renner said. Add a telescope to the mix, and you can “collect a lot of light to see very dim objects, and they have a resolving power to let you see detail that comes with effective magnification.”

It’s a wide, wide world out there, with scientists estimating that there are some 100 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, and that there are 10 trillion galaxies in the universe.

Interested in learning more? Attend the Kitchener-Waterloo chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Stargazing 101 event August 28 at the Conestoga Lake campground parking lot, 6580 Wellington County Rd. in Wallenstein.

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