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Five Amateur Star-Gazers Get Chance at Big Time on Space Telescope

April 26, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ James J. Secosky, a Shortsville, N.Y., school teacher, spent a summer of his youth mowing lawns to buy a $20 telescope so he could spend clear nights gazing heavenward at billions of stars.

Ana Larson, a Seattle housewife, studied astronomy by correspondence while raising two children and began to wonder if there was intelligent life ″somewhere out there.″

Peter J. Kandefer saw Sputnik, history’s first artificial satellite, pass overhead in 1957 and then later sighted two comets. ″After that, I was hooked on astronomy,″ he said.

Now they are in the group of five amateur astronomers who will be given ″viewing time″ on the Hubble Space Telescope, a $1.5 billion orbiting instrument that may give the best look ever of the universe.

″This is absolutely unprecedented,″ said Kandefer, 43, a New Hartford, Conn., electrical engineer. ″Amateurs just never get access to university telescopes to do study of their own. There is just too much demand on that equipment from the professionals.″

But Riccardo Giacconi, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, decided to give amateurs a chance. He set aside part of his discretionary time on the Hubble and invited amateur astronomy organizations to select viewing projects proposed by their members.

″I expect that amateur astronomers will use the Hubble Space Telescope to ask refreshing new questions and that their findings will make a real contribution to the advancement of astronomy,″ he said.

The Hubble telescope was released Wednesday from the end of a 50-foot-long mechanical arm on the space shuttle Discovery.

In addition to Kandefer, Secosky and Larson, the amateurs selected from the hundreds who proposed projects were Ray Sterner of Woodbine, Md., and T. John Hewitt of Berkeley, Calif.

Kandefer’s study target is one of the most commonly seen points of light in the sky - a star in the handle of the Big Dipper known as HD112185.

The star, which is 110 light years away, is one of a small group of known variable stars. These are light sources that vary in intensity at set intervals.

″It changes in a regular fashion every 5.9 days and has been observed for well over 40 years,″ said Kandefer. The change, so slight that it takes instruments to measure, may reveal details about star composition and formation.

″It’s such a tough star to measure, it’s really beyond the capabilities of Earth-based telescopes,″ Kandefer said. But Hubble will be able to make the observations with 10-minute glimpses over a five-night period.

Kandefer said the data he will receive will be ″charts with squiggly lines″ that he then will analyze on his personal computer.

For Secosky, a 42-year-old high school science teacher, the Hubble will focus on a moon of Jupiter called Io.

″Io is very interesting because it has active volcanoes and lakes of liquid sulfur,″ said Secosky.

He hopes to learn why Io changes in brightness when it moves in and out of the frigid shadow of Jupiter. The Hubble will be looking for evidence of frost forming on the moon and will take a series of images just as it moves from the shadow into light.

Secosky’s Hubble experiment continues an intellectual adventure that started in high school when he mowed lawns at 50 cents an hour to earn money for a telescope.

″In high school, every clear night I was out looking at the stars for hours,″ he recalls.

But astronomy remained a hobby. Secosky earned a master’s degree in biology, has taught high school science for 18 years and is raising a family.

Ana Larson, the Seattle mother of two, started on her own but plans to become a professional astronomer.

She first took astronomy by correspondence while raising a son and a daughter and now, at 42, she hopes to use what she learns from the Hubble studies for a master’s thesis in astronomy.

Her interest centers on one of the most fundamental questions of astronomy: Is there life beyond the solar system? Larson’s Hubble project is to look for planets orbiting other suns in other solar systems.

″If we can find just a single planet, then that leads to the idea that, yes, there is life out there,″ said Larson. However, she admits, ″I get this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that perhaps we are alone.″

The Hubble will look for small points of heat about a select group of stars. Larson said the plan is to detect the heat that is generated as matter comes together to form planets.

Sterner, who works at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Baltimore, will focus his study on mysterious arcs of light that have been seen in distant galaxy clusters. He thinks the arcs may be caused by a gravitational effect that bends light as does an optical lens.

Hewitt’s project will be conducted only if a star explodes sometime during the year after Hubble is launched. He will be looking for a comet cloud that scientists believe forms around all stars.

The cloud cannot be seen normally, but an exploding star would provide a burst of light, rather like a flashbulb, to illuminate the distant wisp of matter.