Arts and Entertainment

Battle Point Astronomical Association parties with the stars

It’s a dark Saturday night and, while the air may be cool, the sky is clear, and that’s all that matters to the members of the Battle Point Astronomical Association and their guests. At the base of the club’s observatory at Bainbridge Island’s Battle Point Park, groups gather around a collection of telescopes to marvel at the night sky. The portable telescopes are extremely high-tech, many computer-controlled, but even they pale in comparison to the club’s pièce de résistance: the Ritchie telescope, housed within a dome at the top of an 800-foot, World War II communications tower at the center of the park.

With its 27.5-inch mirror, the Ritchie telescope is the largest public access telescope in the Pacific Northwest. Shortly after the club’s incorporation in 1993, BPAA founders Mac Gardner, John Rudolph and Edwin Ritchie — for whom the scope is named — acquired two state-of-the-art mirror blanks from the Boeing Company as surplus of Strategic Defensive Initiative, commonly called the “Star Wars” strategic defense program. One they donated to the University of Arizona, the other became the heart of the Ritchie telescope, taking club volunteers nearly a year of diamond-grinding and polishing to achieve its precise, flawless curve.

BPAA members share their unique facility with the public one Saturday each month. These “star parties” are many things to many people. To club members and enthusiasts the gatherings are a chance to connect with fellow astronomers. To starry-eyed lovers, it’s a cheap yet romantic date. But for children, it can be the spark that ignites a lifelong sense of celestial wonder.

“My interest in astronomy began when I was kid,” said BPAA president Stephen Ruhl. “Lots of children have a fascination with the stars, so I’m happy to see all the families that come to our star parties. The experience is magical. For instance, light from galaxies millions of light years away is light that has been traveling since before the dinosaurs died.”

Star parties begin with a visit to the Rudolph Planetarium for a preview of the astronomical objects for which attendees will be searching the skies later that evening — or, if the clouds move in, what would have been on view. Often, club members offer an educational presentation at this time. Topics range from the nature of light to the mythology of the constellations. Ruhl emphasizes that the programs are geared for all ages. As an example, a recent lecture, “Light: the Astronomer’s Tool,” included an introduction to quantum particles, in cartoon form.

“I have to be ready for anything,” Ruhl said. “First a kid will ask a good, general question like, ‘What’s a black hole?’ Then a college student will ask something highly technical.”

After the planetarium show, the group is invited to tour the facility, including the big telescope itself. Then, weather permitting, it’s time for some star gazing.

The BPAA offers those interested in exploring the universe a chance to enjoy the hobby with like-minded people.

Annual dues are $20 per individual or $30 for a family. Membership includes loan of BPAA telescopes, as well as help and advice on a range of astronomical issues.

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