Anyone can take a look up at the night sky, but with the help and knowledge of seasoned pros, amateur stargazers can reach new heights in their hobby.
Established in 1929, the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh (3AP, for short) has unlocked the secrets of the night sky for beginners and life-long hobbyists alike. So whether you get a crick in your neck searching for stars at night, or pour over star maps and research, the association is for any Pittsburgher interested in learning more about astronomy.
Very Local caught up with 3AP Vice President Zakery Koban to talk about constellations, what drew him to stargazing, and how the hobby can contribute to very real research.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Very Local: What drew you to the Amateur Astronomers Association?
Zakery Koban: As a younger person, I always had an affinity for the stars. I work in the health field, but I always had a strong interest in science, which drew me to astronomy. It’s an interesting discipline because it is a field of science that citizens can get involved in at an amateur level.
One of the main reasons I got involved with the association is to use their grounds, which are darker sky locations away from city lights. We have two observatories: the Wagman in Tarentum, and the Mingo Park in Finleyville. Members have access to the grounds where they can set up and use their telescope equipment, in addition to the large observatories, that during certain events, are open to both the public and members.
VL: I know the club is for “amateur astronomers,” but what kind of skill level do most members have?
ZK: Aside from access to dark skies near the city, a major draw to the 3AP is its exposure to members. We’ve got some very, very skilled astronomers with a fantastical knowledge base to learn from. They’ll actually do some science and contribute data to professional astronomers–measuring magnitudes of stars or measure the separation of double stars. I know people who get into the nitty-gritty, they want to get into mathematics, they want to try to measure distances to stars.
But, all you really need is an interest in stars. People ask all the time if they need a telescope to join, but you absolutely don’t. People come from all different backgrounds and all facets of life. When there’s something interesting in the night sky, people will simply find their way to the grounds, and that’s how we’ve built membership. Many members just stumbled on the field one evening during a star party and decided to join us.
VL: What exactly is a star party?
ZK: Usually, we’ll have star parties in the warmer summer months, but COVID-19 kept us from being able to do them this year. They’re interesting nights–it’s when key-holding members of 3AP open the observatory and larger telescopes to be accessible to the general public.
We’ll find celestial objects that are of interest to show everyone and teach them about the night sky. Plus, members will bring their telescopes and set them up out on the ground, and every member may have something interesting to show.
VL: What happens in the 3AP during colder months?
ZK: From September to May, we host monthly meetings. Typically, these take place at the Science Center, but for now, they’re happening over Zoom. One of my main functions as vice president is to seek out guest lecturers to present to members and the public.
Typically, we’ll try to find a professor that works in the field of astronomy, cosmology, or astrophysics. This week, we actually have a professor coming to talk about his research into the theoretical ninth planet in our solar system and the methods that he’s been employing to search for it.
This is for club members, but the general public as well. We want to educate as many people as we can–we’d like to keep interest in the night sky as high as possible.