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Astronomy Outreach at Camp Eberhart

Posted by Darren Drake   01/19/2009 12:00AM

Astronomy Outreach at Camp Eberhart
Astronomy Outreach at Camp Eberhart

For quite a number of years now I have been active in astronomy outreach. I have been an astronomer/show operator at the Cernan Space Center since 1990 and have also taught astronomy at a local community college. More recently I have become an active sidewalk astronomer often setting up in front of a local Borders Book Store usually with my 8-inch f/8 equatorially mounted scope. In addition I have also taken on the role of organizing astronomy nights at the Hinsdale Public Library here in the Chicago suburbs. Few things are more rewarding to me than showing people views of celestial objects to new and inquisitive eyes. The sidewalk astronomy is especially fun since most observers are simply passers by and have no idea what to expect. The reactions to a high resolution view of the moon or planet is often one of shock and disbelief that a simple telescope can present such a view. “It must be fake” is a common type of response. A simple tap on the telescope and the shaky image that results is proof enough that the image is real.

While many of these experiences are immensely rewarding, none compare to the ultimate outreach experience that I have been blessed to be a part of as the experience at a YMCA Camp in Michigan the last three summers. Back in the fall of ’05 I responded to an add in S&T for a resident astronomer to run nightly observing sessions at Camp Eberhart near Three Rivers, Michigan. After a number of back and forth correspondences and a visit from Lou Sandock, a key organizer, I was offered the job.

Astronomy at Camp Eberhart

The last 3 summers I have committed myself to running the astro program at Camp Eberhart. For 10 weeks each summer, I have lived in my own cabin near the shores of Corey Lake and actually been paid to show views through my own telescope and share my expertise with young campers. The site where the observing is done is a far cry from a typical sidewalk astronomy site. The location is behind the camp’s astrocenter and is a genuine dark sky site. It is located right off the shores of Corey Lake and in fact is on a peninsula and has water in 3 directions and faces south. It has a clear exposure in all directions but the north which is somewhat blocked by a building and a few trees.

The astrocenter, which is in a building called Dave’s House, has ten 8-inch Orion XT Dobs and one 10-incher. It also has a complete library of astronomy books and magazines along with 5 computers with astro-programs as well as many other educational resources. It is mainly used during daytime activities and cloudy nights when activities are not focused on the night sky and for storing the many telescopes. The astrocenter, along with the ideal observing site nearby, make this facility a perfect place to experience and teach astronomy.

The main telescope I used for the observing sessions is my own and I have had it for over 18 years. It is a Sky Designs 18-inch f/4.4 on an Osypowski tracking platform made in the late ‘80’s. It is an older style Dob that has a different design than the typical Obsession style in that it has 10-inch aluminum altitude bearings as opposed to the much larger semi circles bearings that are so commonly used today. Consequently it has a much higher profile mirror box that is more cumbersome to transport than most other dobs this size. This larger style mirror box does have a major advantage over the other design in that it allows for the placement of a significantly sized scope to be placed on the back end of the mirror box without affecting the balance. So as a result I generally have an Orion ST120 refractor along with a 22mm Nagler I use as a large finder/auxiliary scope. I can also mount my William Optics 80mm FD next to the ST120 if I desire.

I never use digital setting circles to locate objects. If I need assistance finding objects I use a pocket computer with the Sky software with a telrad overlay on the screen to locate objects swiftly. Recently I obtained a 2-inch Amici prism diagonal to use with the finder so as to match star maps making finding deep sky objects a breeze. In addition I also have mounted a green laser so that any nearby observers can see exactly where the scope is pointed and therefore the exact location of the object. In short, this scope is most ideal for using for both an observing instrument as well as a teaching tool for aspiring young astronomers. It is important that for learning purposes none of the scopes used have any kind of goto capabilities.

Week to week operations at the astro-program

I have been fortunate enough to have worked with an amazing staff of administrators and counselors, many of which are internationals at Camp Eberhart. Each week at camp around 200 to 280 campers come to camp. Their ages range from 7 to 16. Of those maybe 10%-15% sign up for the astro-program. I was assisted this last summer by 2 longtime counselors who each have had a long history with the camp and also took on a leadership role at the astro-program. Daytime activities included building and launching rockets, making planispheres, learning to use 8-inch dobs, making posters about the planets, constructing small telescopes, and using astro-programs on the computers among many other things. This summer for the first time each week we made a 10 billion to one scale model of the solar system that was displayed around camp with the sun and nine (yes nine) planets made by the campers and placed at the correct distances from the sun as well as the correct size to scale. Nighttime activities, which took place each Monday through Thursday, involved campers coming out at dark learning the brighter stars and numerous constellations with the aid of the laser pointer.

The real fun each night would start when it became dark enough for the Milky Way to shine brightly. I would continue by showing the many celestial delights with the big Dob usually with the 13mm Ethos and paracorr in place. Of the many celestial objects available I often would show a number of showpieces each night. Some of those included Alberio, M13, M57, M27, NGC6543, M5, M51, NGC 4565, M8, M22, M11, and NGC 7662 to name just a few. Many of the views would begin with a look through the 27 X 120 finder (ST 120 with 22 Nagler) followed by the enormous 100 degree field of view offered by the amazing Ethos eyepiece in the big scope. Reactions to the views were often ones of amazement and awe. The object that seemed most impressive was M13 with its 500,000 stars. They often sensed that the object actually contained many thousands of stars from the view offered. Whenever a new object was shown I often made it a point to explain exactly what it was they were seeing and tell them the approximate distance in light years or in the case of galaxies millions of light years the object was from Earth. I often ended each session with a Milky Way sweep with the 31mm Nagler in place so as to demonstrate the sheer number of stars in our galaxy.

Campers were also encouraged to use the many other 8-inch Orion Dobs that were set up. Earlier daytime activities allowed them to practice using the scopes to locate objects across the lake. With patience and determination they were often able to locate various solar system objects and with help some of the brighter deep sky objects. I also would often leave out my William Optics 80mm with a binoviewer in place for them to use as well. Some campers used the 18-inch to locate objects and scan around to discover new objects. A few in particular were tremendously anxious and excited to use the big scope on their own. Many earned numerous astro awards offered by the camp and some earned their proficiency which was a very involved process.


For one week each summer since 2000 Camp Eberhart has offered an Astrocamp to campers. The whole idea was conceived and developed by Lou Sandock, who is a long time alumni of Camp Eberhart and the person responsible for bringing me onboard in ’06. Geared to the 10-12 year age group, the 20-25 kids who sign up are exposed to numerous astro related daytime and night time activities. It is during this week when other astro-educators come in and join in on the fun. The camp is fortunate enough to have these top notch educators avail themselves to this endeavor. They have all become close friends of mine that go well beyond just spending a week with them at camp. Many of them bring their own telescopes and other astro items to help in the activities.

Daytime activities at Astrocamp include discussions about the major constellations, starlab planetarium shows, scavenger hunts, and the building of water bottle rockets to name just a few. We were always sure to give a tour of the Yarger Observatory on an island about a quarter mile away. The observatory has a classic observatory dome and houses a 12.5-inch Newtonian Dynascope circa 1969 or so. The observatory is also used to store a few other scopes for use on the island.

Nighttime activities often would start with a campfire a small distance away further out on the peninsula complete with roasted marshmallows and smores. As darkness approached, campers were encouraged to earn awards by demonstrating knowledge of the constellations and star names as well as to show that they can use the Dobsonian telescopes on the night sky. Sometimes trips to the observatory are offered. At the end of the week each astrocamper is awarded a certificate of completion.

All in all, astrocamp at Camp Eberhart as well as the astro program in general has proven to be a unique offering and experience that I have been proud to have been a part of these last three summers and I look forward to more experiences in the future. No matter where the setting, I will continue to enjoy sharing my knowledge of astronomy with the public and I hope to have a positive impact and be an inspiration to those who themselves discover a love for astronomy.

Darren Drake

More pics from astrocamp 2008

Click here for more pics from astrocamp 2008