After two years apart, amateur astronomers and telescope makers from around the country met at the top of Breezy Hill to enjoy the stars with old and new friends.
Last year was the first time in 66 years that the Springfield Telescope Makers did not hold their annual Stellafane Convention. Stellafane is one of my favorite weekends of the year, so you can imagine my disappointment when the 2020 convention canceled, even if, at that point, we all expected it. And I’m sure many of you felt the same way. By the time I arrived at the top of Breezy Hill, I was desperate for that crisp Vermont mountain air.
Since its founding, Stellafane has become one of the longest-running and grandest star parties in North America and has earned a special place in the hearts of its attendees and the amateur astronomy community. The Springfield Telescope Makers began when 15 men and one woman signed up for a class about mirror grinding with Russel W. Porter. The first official Stellafane Convention was held on July 3 and 4, 1926, and would be held annually until the start of World War II, when the people of Springfield had to dedicate all of their time to working in the town's factories to aid in the war effort. The convention was reinitiated on August 3, 1946, but a second lapse happened after the death of Russell W. Porter in 1949, and it lasted until 1953. Thankfully, this most recent lapse did not last nearly as long as the first two.
Many repeat attendees who arrived around the same time I did Thursday evening voiced their excitement about being back at Stellafane. The pandemic still had some noticeable effects: Many Stellafane regulars and potential newcomers stayed at home, and signs hung on the buildings and observatories requiring attendees to wear masks while inside. None of the lectures were held in the smaller buildings, and the activities for children and teenagers were both held outside.
Friday morning, I headed out to watch the Springfield Telescope Makers mirror-grinding workshops and a few of the lectures in Flanders Pavilion. With the Sun bearing down, I ventured to the top of the hill for the Solar Observing Hour. Both the Cook Spectrohelioscope and the Porter Turret Telescope displayed brilliant views of the Sun. Although there weren’t any sunspots, we did see a bright solar prominence through the Spectrohelioscope.
Both Friday and Thursday nights were spectacularly clear. Observers called out the designations and locations of the objects on the Observing Olympics list and oohed at passing Perseid meteors. The sounds echoed through the night as I chased down globular clusters in Sagittarius.
Saturday morning was cool, but by midday it was even hotter than the day before. I slogged my way up the still-muddy roads to the Swap Tables, which were as usual full of books, telescopes, and accessories. I grabbed a book and a new eyepiece while I was there.
Then, it was off to the annual telescope-making competition. The event attracted 31 entries this year, including four first-time telescope makers. First-timer Gavin Buckowski tied for first place in the small Newtonian optical competition with his 6-inch f/8 Dobsonian, and Steven Bodine took home the gold for craftsmanship with his first scope, an 8-inch f/5.4 Dobsonian. Other noteworthy entries were Keith Warner’s 3D-printed eyepiece turret and filter wheel and Alan Sliski’s restoration of a 4-inch f/15 refractor from the 1930s. The Master Class also had several impressive entrees.
Unfortunately, fog and clouds set in just as the evening talks began and blocked all but the brightest stars that night. During the evening talks, Kris Larsen presented the annual Shadowgram talk on the effects that the pandemic had on amateur astronomy. She took a look at all the ways astronomy clubs and organizations rose to the occasion and continued their outreach efforts while members were stuck at home. She also talked about the wave of new amateurs that have joined clubs over the past year. Most importantly, she described several ways clubs can continue encouraging these new members.
Larsen’s suggestions included utilizing social media and apps, updating old newsletters and websites, changing the format of meetings to make them more entertaining, and directing instruction towards people interested in smaller, more modern scopes.
Stella Kafka, director and CEO of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), gave the keynote presentation on the AAVSO and the dimming of Betelgeuse at the end of 2019 (see “The Great Dimming of Betelgeuse” by Tom Calderwood in the March 2021 issue). She used images from the Hubble Space Telescope and light curves created with data from 115 AAVSO members to explain that although we know what caused this event, we still don’t know if it is a prelude to the star going supernova.
Every year, I find myself wishing Stellafane could last just a little bit longer. But with another weekend on Breezy Hill come and gone too quickly, I, along with many other starry-eyed attendees, reluctantly packed up and headed home. I can’t wait to see everyone there again next year, and if you happen to spot me or any other S&T editors roaming the grounds, feel free to say hi.