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Guests spend night seeing stars

JPL astronomer and LCF resident gives midnight lessons at his personal observatory.

October 14, 2010|By Megan O'Neil, megan.oneil@latimes.com
  • JPL atronomer Stephen Edberg looks at sky full of stars through his 14-inch telescope on Friday, Oct. 8, 2010. Edberg maintains his own observatory north of Frazier Park where he occassionally hosts family, friends and astronomy students.
JPL atronomer Stephen Edberg looks at sky full of stars…

It's pitch dark and Stephen Edberg can barely make out who is who among the dozen guests he has assembled at his personal observatory in Lockwood Valley, just north of Frazier Park.

But this lesson requires only the light of the stars, which radiate above, unmolested by city lights, like a billion pinholes in the black sky. Slowly, with Edberg's guidance, the constellations take shape — Draco the Dragon, Corona Borealis and Lyra. Then it is on to the Messier Objects, nebulae and star clusters catalogued by 18th Century French astronomer Charles Messier. And finally, the planets.

"If you look carefully at Jupiter now, you can see all four of its moons," Edberg, 57, told his guests.

The La Cañada resident and Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer has maintained his observatory, which is equipped with a retractable roof and a 14-inch telescope, since 1993 when he and eight like-minded friends bought a 5-acre plot of undeveloped land to use for star gazing. He visits whenever there is any significant terrestrial event, and is occasionally joined by colleagues or friends.

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On this particular night, Edberg's guests include La Cañada High School science teacher Tom Traeger and a handful of recent LCHS graduates.

"You point your telescope to one section of sky, and you see the same amount of stars in one view that you are seeing in the whole sky, and it is just mind blowing," Traeger, himself an amateur astronomer, said.

One by one, heads pop up through the open roof of the observatory as the stargazers climb up a stepladder to reach the eyepiece of the telescope. They pepper Edberg with questions about the age and size of each object in the sky. And they ooh and ah when he points out what he refers to as the UCLA stars, Albireo A and Albireo B, a pair of stars in the Cygnus constellation that burn yellowish and bluish, respectively, mimicking the university's colors.

"I think I like teaching students [about astronomy] because it kind of reconnects them with how humans used to be," Traeger said. "We used to be able to see a sky, and now, you look up into the sky in LA [at night] and you don't see a thing. People don't have that connectedness any more with the sky."

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