If you like looking at and learning about the stars and planets but don’t know who to share your passion with, there’s a club just for you.
The Omaha Astronomical Society is a group dedicated to mixing serious science and exploration with lots of fun. It was started in 1938 as the Great Plains Astronomy Club, which served both Omaha and Lincoln. But by the 1960s, it had grown so big it was split into two clubs. The Omaha group took the name Omaha Astronomical Society; the Lincoln group is the Prairie Astronomy Club.
The Omaha club, which now has more than 100 members, holds monthly meetings at Durham Science Center on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus.
Between 50 and 60 members attended the July meeting. Friends shared recent sky sightings, astronomy news, the latest telescope they built and things going on in their lives, as well as treats, in the half-hour before Bill Bond, the club president, banged his gavel. Seeing Saturn, which was “putting on a show” for astronomers, was a popular topic.
The two- to three-hour meetings follow a pattern: The first half includes discussions about projects the group has going, upcoming events, any problems and other club business. After a short break, the night’s program follows.
At the July meeting, John Johnson, the club’s outreach coordinator, presented the program, “Seeing and Transparency.”
The meetings are open to the public, and astronomy beginners are welcome. Club members vary in age from teenagers to senior citizens. More established members are happy to help newer ones. And you don’t have to own a telescope.
But almost everyone at the July meeting said members are eager to invest in a new telescope or even build one themselves.
Nina Baker, treasurer, joined the club about 10 years ago. Her husband was a member for two years before she decided to get involved, she said, but she’s been a regular ever since first attending with him.
“Go once and you get infected,” she said with a rueful laugh.
Bond, the president, said he had a longtime interest in the stars from his days as a Boy Scout. He was looking for something to do when he decided to attend a meeting.
“I was hooked,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
One of the younger members is Ryan Steinhauser, 15, who attends Millard North High School. He gave a “tool time” presentation on his new stellarscope, a device that looks a bit like a kaleidoscope and displays all the main stars and constellations of both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. It was a gift from his grandfather, the person who got him interested in astronomy.
The club isn’t just a bunch of stargazers or science nerds, Johnson said. Members give talks, lead Scout and 4-H projects, visit schools, visit nursing homes and do other outreach work. Members also serve as assistants for observation sessions at UNO’s Kountze Planetarium.
In addition to the club’s monthly meetings, the Omaha and Lincoln clubs partner for stargazing events — called star parties — at Mahoney State Park’s Bur Oak picnic area. The Omaha society also takes care of its Astropark, a plot of land near Weeping Water, Nebraska. Members can go out there and see a lot more of the night sky than they can from their yards in the city, where lights cut down on what’s visible.
“It’s a nice place to go,” said Chuck Nejedly, a third-year member who joined the society after getting a telescope for Christmas. He thinks more than 1,500 kids have looked through his telescope so far.
Club members also look forward to the annual Nebraska Star Party at the Snake Campground at Merritt Reservoir near Valentine, Nebraska, which offers a perfect place to watch the sky because of the quality of darkness — it’s one of the country’s top “dark sky” locations because it’s virtually light-pollution free. This year’s gathering was July 27 through Aug. 1 and drew star amateur astronomers from around the country.
People who are interested in the club and want to meet some members can attend a Per- seid Party at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa, tonight. The club will have telescopes set up for viewing the meteor shower. A $2 fee will benefit the nature center. The party is scheduled to start about 8:30, so hope for a clear night.
Astronomy is a great hobby, said Kim Moss Allen, the club secretary, but it does have one drawback: It’s weather-dependent. When there’s bad weather or even just a cloud cover, there are no stars to see.