Photo: Vanessa Ryals

Amateur astronomers pack Markham Park for solar views

in Features/General by

The sun beat down over the backs of nearly 1,200 visitors to the Fox Astronomical Observatory in Broward County’s Markham Park Monday morning as they waited in line for last minute solar eclipse-viewing glasses and a chance to observe the sun through one of many professional telescopes set out.

While the moon passes between the Earth and the Sun about once every 18 months, the United States hasn’t been on the path of complete totality since 1979 – when it crossed across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota. Luckily, visitors to the event were able to get a clear view of the eclipse during its maximum solar disk coverage of 80 percent.

Markham Park typically charges visitors a $1.50 entrance fee per person on weekends and on holidays, but during the eclipse the park was open to guests free of charge. Attendees arrived as early as 11a.m. to snag a pair of free eclipse glasses from members of the South Florida Amateur Astronomers Association (SFAAA) and reserve a spot in the grass. The actual eclipse began at 1:26 p.m., reached maximum extent at 2:57 p.m. and ended at approximately 4:20 p.m.

For those who didn’t arrive in time to claim a pair of glasses, SFAAA member Bill Sander used his personal 1960s Reflecting Telescope to project the eclipse onto a screen large enough for six viewers.

“It was just too hard to always say ‘Wait your turn, wait your turn,’ so I made some adjustments to [the telescope] so I could project it onto this screen. It may be old, but it’s safe,” Sander said.

Sander, a former NASA Mathematician in Data Reduction, has only been an SFAAA member for four years.

“Think back to all the pictures you’d see from the Apollo years of all the big screens with rows and rows of numbers – those numbers were generated from the computer I worked on from 1969 to 1971,” he said. “I left in late 1973 because I was worried about being able to keep a job, meanwhile a friend of mine that I convinced to join me that same summer of 69’ stayed there for 42 years,” he added, chuckling.

After moving to South Florida in the early 1970s, Sander fell out of astronomy work but pursued his star-gazing hobby by amassing a collection of eight different telescopes. While he never returned to working in the field, he is a dedicated member of SFAAA and visits the Fox Observatory every weekend to examine the stars, moon and whichever planets there are to see.

“There’s nothing like coming out here and watching people look through a telescope for the first time and go ‘Wow!’” Sander said. “I’m like a little kid – I don’t want to see a pinpoint of light, I want to see the bands on Jupiter and the rings around Saturn.”

Guests to the Fox Astronomical Observatory can see all these and the Galilean moons every Saturday night from sunset until midnight. The free weekly event is hosted by SFAAA and is always open to the public.

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