Seeing Stars


Starry, Starry NightsDriveway Astronomers See the Emerald Coast in a Whole New Light

By Christy Kearney | Astrophotography by Bob 

On any given clear night, local amateur astronomers – businesspeople, educators, government employees by day – set up telescopes in their driveways and at strategic stargazing locations throughout Northwest Florida to see what the brilliant night sky has in store for them.

With increased technological capabilities, organized amateur groups, new ways to take photographs of deep space and growing educational offerings, astronomy on the Emerald Coast today has a new look and feel compared to the amateur astronomy of yesteryear.

A Sophisticated Science
The days of “star-hopping” in hopes of finding the right star are gone. Astronomy, even on the amateur level, has gone high-tech. Today, telescopes are more advanced than ever, driven by computers, global positioning systems and special software such as Starry Night and TheSky6. Astronomers run the software in concert with their telescopes to search out precisely what they are looking for in the clear night sky. The programs know exactly what stars, constellations and galaxies are looming in the heavens above at a specific time on a particular day.

“This is a different kind of astronomy,” says Bob Gaskin, executive director of the Emerald Coast Science Center and an accomplished amateur astronomer and astrophotographer. He explains that astronomers used to set their telescopes to specific coordinates, then hop stars until they got their targets. Today, an amateur astronomer can use his laptop to call up a target, and if it is connected to his telescope, the program will automatically move the scope to the requested target.

“This isn’t even photography,” Gaskin says. “This is just regular astronomy. Most people aren’t aware of how sophisticated astronomy has become. People think it’s a guy out there struggling to find things looking through a telescope, and that’s not the way it is. It’s pretty sophisticated.”

Gaskin encourages those interested in learning astronomy to join a club, association or group of amateur astronomers. Locally, there are two organizations for astronomy enthusiasts – the Northwest Florida Amateur Astronomers in Okaloosa County and the Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association in Pensacola.

Tony Russo, an astronomy professor at Okaloosa Walton College, heads up the Northwest Florida Amateur Astronomers. The small group of 11 members meets the first Friday of every month at the college’s observatory. The association is active in the community and often facilitates stargazes for local scouting troops.

The Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association is larger, with nearly 200 members in Northwest Florida and southern Alabama, and meets the third Friday of each month at Pensacola Junior College. As an outreach to members living along the Emerald Coast, the club has a member dedicated to coordinating observations in Okaloosa and Walton counties.

For beginners, Russo recommends getting involved with Northwest Florida Amateur Astronomers sessions and stargazes.

“Start by attending our meetings and become acquainted with the subject,” he says. “This is a subject that can be very technical, and an interested person could quickly become lost without help.”

Bob GaskinCapturing the Colors of the Sky
As one of the only astrophotographers in the area and a member of the American Astronomical Society, Gaskin is an integral piece of the local amateur astronomy puzzle. His love of science guided him as he taught himself astronomy and astrophotography. In addition to pursuing his own interest in astronomy, he shares his love for learning with others who want to know more about astronomy by teaching adult classes at the Emerald Coast Science Center, implementing strong astronomy programs for children and even taking on one-on-one mentoring relationships for those who want to dig a little deeper.

For Gaskin, astrophotography adds a challenging element to his astronomy hobby, and the pay-off of beautiful color photographs of galaxies and stars is worth the time and money he puts into it. One of the reasons he delved into astrophotography was his desire to combat the area’s high level of light pollution, which can inhibit astronomers from seeing the cosmos even on the clearest of nights.

“Light pollution is staggering in this area,” Gaskin says. “What that means is to be an astronomer you have to be very, very good with your telescope and your laptop at finding things. You can find stuff, but you won’t see that much because of the light pollution.”

Gaskin cites the lighting as a major problem for local astronomers. In fact, many of the astronomers in the area go to Mossy Head, Crestview and Freeport for stargazing.

Interestingly, while light pollution is an issue on the coast, areas in the northern parts of Okaloosa and Walton counties and in southern Alabama, such as Florala, Ala., are considered some of the darkest spots in the country.

“If you are where I am at my home in Miramar Beach, how do you see this stuff?” Gaskin asks. The stargazer’s solution is to take a picture. “If I look through the eyepiece, I can’t see anything,” he says. “If I put the camera in and tell it to take a five-minute picture, boom – a galaxy explodes.”

Even when traditional astronomers have a clear, dark night, the galactic sites all are in shades of gray.

“I can take a full-color picture when I’m across the street from a streetlight that’s like a searchlight, and I can still take breathtaking pictures,” says Gaskin of the merits of astrophotography. “If you are dissatisfied with astronomy, you might want to try astrophotography, which is much better than just looking because you get a picture, and it’s in color.”

When Gaskin isn’t shooting the stars and posting his photography on the Emerald Coast Science Center Web site, he is shooting for par at the Raven Golf Club at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, where his beautiful astronomy photos are on display.

While astrophotography has its benefits, the hobby can be expensive to do well. On average, a camera can run from $6,000 to $10,000, and then there is an additional investment for the proper software to capture, process and finish the photographs.

Another challenge is the level of difficulty and lack of formal training programs specific to astrophotography in the area.

“Unless you’ve got somebody living there next to you or belong to a big club with lots of people doing this, how do you learn?” Gaskin says. “I’m all self-taught, but being a science museum director, that wasn’t hard. The average guy is going to find it really hard to do.”

For the Love of Learning
Anyone interested in astronomy can take a step back in time and recall childhood days of learning about space and creating papier-mâché planets. Although educational programs are limited locally, those interested in expanding their astronomy knowledge and know-how can get plugged in at Okaloosa Walton College or the Emerald Coast Science Center in downtown Fort Walton Beach.

For senior citizens, the college offers Prime Time, an astronomy program at the school’s observatory on the Niceville campus. Adults can also sign up for one of the college’s regularly offered astronomy classes to take advantage of the facility, which is otherwise closed to the public.

As a complement to Okaloosa Walton College’s offerings, the Emerald Coast Science Center organizes a variety of astronomy programs for both young and old. Gaskin says the center is a “first-class resource for the area, and the only resource for astronomy in the area.”

When interest warrants it, Gaskin teaches adult classes at the center. If he does not have enough students for a full class, he will work with students one on one.

The science center frequently joins forces with schools throughout Northwest Florida to offer interactive and educational astronomy programs and stargazes. With a strong astronomy presence in its curriculum, the science center secured business sponsors from the local aerospace community to purchase a cutting-edge, $20,000 portable planetarium, the LaserStar Lab. The staff sets up the planetarium at local schools and youth functions and during the center’s year-round and seasonal programs.

To Gaskin, teaching is the best part of his job and his hobby. He loves sharing his knowledge with others and is a rich resource for students, teachers and his fellow astronomers and astrophotographers.

While astronomy is a part of both Gaskin’s and Russo’s work life, they, like most amateur astronomers, do not study the stars and skies for a paycheck but for pure passion.

“This subject is definitely one that can bring people together, no matter what your background or religious belief,” Russo says. “It is indeed both humbling to see what beauty God hath wrought and rewarding to know that you are part of it.”