Don’t be surprised if you see some of the valley’s best and brightest sporting Disney’s Pluto pins.

“My favorite night-sky memory is when a group of Tri-Valley Stargazers club members decided to observe Pluto at Hidden Hill Observatory, the club’s dark-sky observing site,” said Ken Sperber. “Pluto is a challenge to find among the vast background of stars. Using numerous telescopes of different sizes, all participants were able to observe Pluto and confirm its motion relative to the background stars. Subsequently, club member Roland Albers, who initiated the observation, gave all observers a Disney pin of Pluto. I wear mine proudly on my cap.”

Because the Pluto sought by the Tri-Valley Stargazers is not the one located 366 miles away at Disneyland but the one 3.1 billion miles away in the night sky, seeing it fulfilled a lifelong goal for Albers.

“The 2015 images of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft motivated me to try again to achieve a longtime personal goal to visually observe Pluto,” said Albers, membership director of the Tri-Valley Stargazers (TVS). “I'd tried in the past, but my modest eight-inch telescope was not up to the task, especially from the light-polluted skies of my Pleasanton backyard. So I recruited some of my TVS friends who had much larger telescopes and we went to our club's dark-sky observing site. The conditions were perfect, and as soon as it was dark enough I was finally able to glimpse faint, distant Pluto. We had six club members in our group that night, and none had seen Pluto visually before. We’re still bragging about the experience.”

For the 130-plus members of the Tri-Valley Stargazers, a sense of awe and discovery is all-important. That, and the eagerness to share it with others.

“The club's mission is to bring together people interested in astronomy, to provide opportunities for them to develop their skills and knowledge in astronomy, and to promote education and public interest in astronomy,” Albers said.

For both Albers and Sperber, who edits the TVS newsletter, an interest in astronomy started young. Albers, at 9 years old, received a small telescope which he promptly aimed to the sky in search of Jupiter. Sperber’s interest was piqued when his grandfather took him up to the roof of his Bronx apartment building to look at constellations.

“The experience inspired me to pursue a career in science, having spent nearly 30 years at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory studying weather and climate variability, and climate change,” Sperber said.

However, Sperber noted, people with all levels of interest, knowledge and experience are welcomed into the club, which includes members aged 10 to 80.

“Astronomy is a family-friendly endeavor that can inspire minds, young and old,” Sperber said. “The Tri-Valley Stargazers is a club with members who are beginner, experienced and professional astronomers. We endeavor to share our experiences with others to nurture their interest in astronomy.”

Club meetings are free and open to the public. They take place at 7:30 p.m. on the third Friday of each month at the Unitarian Universalist Church, located at 1893 N. Vasco Road, Livermore.

“The meetings are fun social events that bring together folks with widely varied interests and levels of experience in astronomy. The meeting consists of club business — including announcements of club outreach star parties in which members bring telescopes to schools, senior centers and other public locations to share the night sky with interested members of the public,” Sperber said. “The featured presentation by a professional or experienced astronomer follows.”

At the May meeting, LLNL physicist Kirsten Howley, Ph.D., spoke on “Preventing an Asteroid Apocalypse.”

“An asteroid impact is a very low probability but potential high consequence threat,” Howley said. “We currently don’t see anything of concern heading our way. However, NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) are actively working in collaboration on developing a strategy for dealing with an asteroid hazard should the need arise in the future. I discussed our efforts regarding asteroid hazard mitigation. This included past impacts, what the current threat space looks like, what our mitigation options are, how effective those mitigation options are against a hypothetical threat, and the tool we’re developing to address those needs.”

The tool is the HAMMER (Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response), which can be used as either a kinetic impactor or a spacecraft to carry a nuclear payload capable of blowing up an asteroid that’s on a catastrophic collision course with Earth.

“Our June 15 speaker will be Dr. Nathan Golovich from LLNL. He will discuss the latest research into finding out what constitutes dark matter as revealed by the Nobel Prize-winning observations of gravitational waves by LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory,” Sperber said. “We are privileged to live in a scientific mecca, able to draw upon speakers from LLNL, UC Berkeley, SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence), and NASA AMES Research Center to bring high-quality speakers to club meetings.”

Membership in TVS ranges from $5 (high-school and college students) to $30 (general public). An additional $10 (plus a one-time key deposit of $20) allows members annual access to the club’s dark-sky site, Hidden Hill Observatory (H2O).

Coming events are announced on the TVS website, where visitors may also view astrophotographs, featured on the bottom of the Contacts page.

“Astrophotography is the art of taking images of the night sky,” said Sperber. “There is a wide variety of techniques, cameras and telescopes that can capture more light than eyes can see and thus reveal aspects of the universe that are typically not seen.”

A mainstay of the Tri-Valley Stargazers is hosting outreach programs, including star parties for students and for other groups, like Boy and Girl Scouts.

“Our next public star party will be held jointly with the East Bay Regional Park District on July 21 at the Del Valle Arroyo staging area. Venus, Jupiter and Saturn will be the featured attractions that night,” said Albers. “The outreach events that TVS holds throughout the year make it simple for the public to join us and take a closer look at the big, marvelous universe we inhabit.”

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