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Spokane on space watch

Debbie Cotten is a member of the Spokane Astronomical Society. One of her telescopes is a 6-inch F 15 Cave Astrola which she has used to see the Andromeda Galaxy 2.9 million light years away.  
 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Debbie Cotten is a member of the Spokane Astronomical Society. One of her telescopes is a 6-inch F 15 Cave Astrola which she has used to see the Andromeda Galaxy 2.9 million light years away. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Fifty years ago this month, members of the Inland Northwest’s oldest amateur astronomy organization set up telescopes to track the early orbits of Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite launched into space by the then-Soviet Union.

They were part of a nationwide civilian effort to keep an eye on Sputnik during the height of the Cold War and the start of what would become the Space Race to land a man on the moon, which the U.S. won 12 years later.

The society turned 75 years old this year, making it one of the region’s longest-lived community club organizations.

“We are really proud of it,” said Debbie Cotten, who has been compiling the society’s history in recent months.

Tracking the Russian satellite in 1957 was an example of the legacy of community service that characterizes the Spokane Astronomical Society. That effort was coordinated through the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and continued until 1960. Participants tracked various satellites launched by the U.S. and Soviet Union.

Today, when planets align or a comet crosses the night sky, society members set up their telescopes and invite the public to have a look through them. The goal of the society is to spread knowledge and excitement of astronomy.

Their formula works. Hundreds of people turned out for a society event in 2003 when Earth made its closest pass of Mars in 60,000 years. Polar ice caps on the Red Planet were easily visible to viewers who stood in lines to look through a variety of scopes set up for them.

Each year, the society holds a Star Gaze event for the public in the fall and an Astronomy Day for youth in the spring.

Monthly star parties draw society members and others on moonless clear Saturday nights. In recent years, the star parties have convened along a public road near Fishtrap Lake southwest of Spokane.

Early records said the society was founded by at least 1932 when the then-Amateur Telescope Makers of Spokane participated in a night time count of migrating birds as part of a study by Louisiana State University and the National Audubon Society. They counted birds as they passed in front of a fully lit moon. There are no other records to indicate the founding of the organization, so the society has used 1932 as the date of its founding, society member Bill Cotten said.

The telescope maker’s name was changed in the 1960s to the Spokane Astronomical Society, which subsequently hosted regional conventions in 1989 of the Astronomical League and its successor organization in 1999, Cotten said.

The society currently has about 90 dues-paying members, including some from North Idaho and other locales throughout the region. The cost is $25 for adults and $14 for junior members. The Spokane society was a national leader in establishing a Young Astronomers program, and several of the local youth members have won national recognition.

Over the years, society members have been treated to a lot of nighttime sights.

Eric Strang, an expert at finding “deep sky objects” such as star clusters and galaxies, said that one of the most dramatic sights came in 1994 when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into Jupiter, leaving a huge impact mark on one of Jupiter’s famed bands. “That was incredible,” Strang said.

The knowledge of astronomy has progressed dramatically as a result of space exploration and the observations from the robotic Hubble space telescope, which has the ability to look across the universe to galaxies that date back almost to the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago. Other recent discoveries have shown the possibility that another planet similar to Earth may exist in another solar system.

“The knowledge of what’s beyond our atmosphere doubles every year,” said John Riegel, society president.

The esoteric aspects of astronomy and astrophysics should not intimidate amateurs, Cotten said. Seeing the rings of Saturn for the first time through a telescope or finding star clusters and nebulae in well-known constellations is exciting in its own right.

“You don’t have to be a physicist or a professor to be an amateur astronomer,” she said.