Calaveras Enterprise

Star light, star bright: Look into the heavens

Richard Rymer zeroes in on the stars in Amador CountySarah Lunsford

Richard Rymer zeroes in on the stars in Amador CountySarah Lunsford

Night skies over the Mother Lode serve as a playground for curious star gazers.

As you take a step outside in the foothills and look around, many amazing sights greet you, from historic towns to caverns and other natural wonders. When you look up, the view becomes even more amazing as you spy a canopy of stars that blankets the night sky or you catch the rise of the moon or other planets against the backdrop of the universe.

“I got a taste of it in high school with one of my friend’s having a telescope,” said Pine Grove resident Richard Rymer of the starts at night. He teaches stargazing classes at the Amador County Recreation Agency’s HUB in Jackson, and hosts stargazing parties at Kennedy Tailing Wheels Park. And he’s a founding member of Gold Country Astronomers in Amador County.

Even though Rymer developed a taste for appreciating the sky at night and the objects that are in it at a young age, it wasn’t until 20 years after high school when Halley’s Comet streaked across the night sky that he got hooked.



“A friend bought a telescope,” he said. “I found Halley’s Comet, and I’ve been at it ever since.”

That was in 1986, during the last time the comet came close to Earth. A so-called periodic comet, Halley’s Comet comes into the Earth’s cosmic neighborhood about every 75 years, which makes it visible to some people twice in their lifetimes. Mark Twain was born within days of its appearance, then died a day after it next appeared.

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it,” Twain reportedly said in 1909, according to biographer Albert Bigelow Paine. Twain’s words proved prophetic; he died on April 21, 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet emerged from the far side of the sun.

The sky is filled with famous objects like Halley’s Comet and Orion’s belt, as well as an infinite number of stars and constellations that most of us have never heard of, yet all of them have their own characteristics and peculiarities. Trained astronomers and amateur stargazers love to see what’s up in the sky and discover new points of light, specks that might be visible regularly or just every few hundred or thousand years.



There are many ways to observe what goes on in the night, or daytime, sky. You can see objects with the naked eye, with binoculars or with telescopes.

“The classes that I normally teach are for people who are looking to buy a telescope and for people who haven’t figured out how to use it yet,” Rymer said. He adds that each telescope is different and many times people have trouble viewing objects in the sky because they haven’t properly placed their telescopes. “Each one is different in the setup procedure.”

No matter how you choose to see what’s out there, it’s always a good idea to have map of the nighttime sky prepared for the time of year during which you’re gazing at the stars. Also in the beginner’s toolkit of information are planispheres, which appear rather like color wheels that track constellations and formations according to seasons.



“I always give my students a map of the night sky,” Rymer said of his stargazing parties and classes at the HUB. The sessions are generally broken into two parts, one in a classroom and one out under the stars, during which students get practical experience in how to operate their telescopes.

“They’ll get a basic idea on paper what to look at,” Rymer says of the classroom session and the star maps he gives to his students. “I present one (class) every month for the current sky.”

To learn more about the night sky, a trip just outside of the Mother Lode will take you on a tour of the universe, giving you an up close and personal view of a fraction of what’s out there in the expanse of stars and nebulas and galaxies.

On April 6 this year, the planetarium at the Great Valley Museum on the Modesto Junior College campus officially opened its doors to stargazers.



“The planetarium has some very high tech equipment,” said Arnold Chaves, manager at the Great Valley Museum.

That equipment includes a Zeiss Skymaster ZKP-4 LED planetarium projector and a Zeiss Velvet Projection System that work together to project images on a 40-foot suspended dome ceiling.

“(It’s) very crisp and sharp projection,” Chavez said. “We can project essentially anything.”

Anything means tours of the infiniteness of space to the microscopic inner space of the human body.

Although there have been many different mechanical means to view the solar system across human history – a primary machine was the orrery, which showed our solar system and predicted the movements of the planets and the moon – in the early 1900s it was Oskar Von Miller of the Deutsches Museum in Munich who began work with the Zeiss optical factory and other notable figures in astronomy, to develop the very first projector that traced the movement of celestial bodies and projected them onto a concrete dome. This first planetarium with a projector was revealed to the public in a showing at the end of 1923, beginning an era in which planetariums gave viewers a taste of what’s out there and hopefully whetted their appetites and interest in learning more about the Earth and where it fits into the universe at large.

perseid-full   Jimmy Westlake.jpg

perseid-full Jimmy Westlake.jpg

“We do have tours of the galaxy that we do,” Chavez said. “It’s like being on the ‘Star Trek’ Enterprise.”

The planetarium is “touching the tip of the iceberg,” as far as shows that it can offer to the public, Chavez said.

Some of the shows are developed by staff astronomers at the college, and the shows are on the cutting edge, as far as content goes.

“The content is coming from the staff,” Chavez said. “The system is going to be updated with the photographs of Pluto.”

That’s the same Pluto that just a few years ago was demoted from a full-fledged planet to a dwarf planet. This year, NASA’s New Horizons interplanetary space probe snapped photos of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, which scientists believe provides clues to the formation of our solar system.



New Horizons took photos of Pluto that show a vast icy plain that’s possibly still being shaped by geological processes. The plain has been nicknamed the Tombaugh Region after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.

A little closer to home, not only are there stargazing opportunities in your own backyard, but there a variety of stargazing parties led by area astronomers at places all over the Gold Country.

Combining two natural wonders, Astronomy Nights at the Scenic Overlook in Calaveras Big Trees State Park highlight both the giant sequoias that reach toward the sky and the nighttime array of stars. At dusk, park visitors head to the scenic overlook and cast their gazes skyward.

“It’s hosted by our volunteers,” said Wendy Harrison, interpretive specialist at the state park. “They’ve been doing it for a couple of years. They have telescopes and talk about the constellations. They talk about what’s in the sky that night.”



Harrison adds that guests “can see some deep-sky objects that they may not be able to see with their naked eyes.”

Because of the lack of light noise in the foothills – illumination that effectively blocks out many stargazing opportunities in cities because fainter formations and stars cannot be seen – stargazers can see more than they would be able to in more populated areas, where parking lot and streetlights make it difficult to see stars.

“People love it,” Harrison said of the stargazing events. “A lot of people come out for it,” she added, noting that the park can accommodate about 100 stargazers.

If you go to a stargazing party and find out you really enjoy it, one of the best ways to learn more about astronomy and all the sky has to offer is to join a club.

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Amador stargazers07.jpg

“I joined a club,” Rymer said of pursuing his interest in the stars. “The best way to learn the sky is from somebody who already knows it.”

Even though there’s a lot to be seen in the sky, it can be difficult to get pinpoint formations and constellations beyond the Big Dipper, North Star and maybe the planet Venus after sunset.

“When you’re starting out, you really don’t know what’s what up there,” Rymer said. “You’re going to learn by looking at it.”

One way that more experienced stargazers help newcomers is to teach them how to star-hop to find what they’re looking for.

“Star-hopping is a procedure for finding obscure objects,” Rymer explained.

Just like the name suggests, star-hopping is a technique through which easily seen objects are located, then the view is moved to another object, then to another. Stargazers progressively get closer to what they want to see by hopping from easier-to-find dots of light to more-difficult-to-uncover stars.

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Amador stargazers06.jpg

Because the night sky changes with not only the Earth’s rotation around the sun but the orbits of other planets and stars through their galaxies, Rymer hands out star maps at his classes and star parties that let people know what’s up there on that particular night. That’s also why area clubs meet frequently to view changes in the heavens as the seasons pass.

To get a taste of what’s out there, you can also download apps for handheld devices. The apps allow users to point devices at the night sky and provide approximations of where objects are at the moment the stars are being viewed.

“You get a basic idea of what you’re looking at” with the apps, Rymer said. “It’s not really, really accurate, but it gives a general ballpark.”

One interesting difference between looking at planets and viewing stars through devices rather than binoculars or telescopes is that when most planets from our solar system are viewed through devices, they will appear larger. Looking at stars on the other hand, because they are so far away, they tend to be seen as spots of light about the same size, no matter what the magnification of the device through which they are viewed.

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Amador stargazers04.jpg

Once you get a taste of what’s out there, you’ll notice that the sky changes very quickly. Many objects move through space in regular and predictable ways; objects like planets are so predictable that some software programs not only track them through space, but also through time.

“We have annual events that are fairly rigid,” Rymer offered.

He says the Perseid meteor shower is one of those regular extraterrestrial events; it arrives around Aug. 12 or 13 every year. That kind of reliability has made the sky a navigation tool throughout history; the stars at night have been used not only to tell sailors and pilots where they are, but for those who hold to different faiths, objects in space have been indicators of important happenings both in the heavens and on the Earth below.

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Amador stargazers05.jpg

“In my Navy career, I had a little bit of experience with the stars (with) celestial navigation training,” said Jim Dodge, a retired Naval officer and jet pilot who lives in Mountain Ranch. “In the slower-moving ships, you navigate through the stars.”

He pointed to the military’s use of the stars to navigate during World War II, and that navigating in this way is an “art, particularly in the military.”

“The issue of using the stars to navigate and travel is quickly becoming a thing of the past,” Dodge said, recognizing technological advancements such as Global Positioning System satellites.

But that doesn’t mean the stars aren’t still useful tools in roaming the Earth’s surface.

“You can always track anything that goes across the sky,” he said.

A Christian, Dodge says he became more interested in the sky and what it contains when he saw a connection with his faith.

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Amador stargazers03.jpg

“I had an appreciation for the skies,” he said. “But it wasn’t until I got into the study of prophecy that it was made very clear to me that God uses stars to communicate.”

According to Dodge, one such communication came in the form of the star of Bethlehem during the story of Christ’s birth. It was in watching a program about that star that he began to have questions about that particular heavenly body.

“I was left with a lot more questions than answers after watching that,” he said.

Those questions led him on an in depth multiyear investigation of his own about the star that he’s dubbed the Christmas Star. In his investigations, he used software called Starry Night Pro, and has the perspective that the star had to be within the natural order of the universe and a rare occurrence.

“It had to be not only orderly, but repeatable,” he said.

After systematically ruling out other types of objects in the sky like comets and supernovas, Dodge found that the star was actually a conjunction made up of two planets, Jupiter and Venus, along with the star Regulus that can be seen with the naked eye when all three appear together.

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Amador stargazers02.jpg

As Dodge completed his research, he found that the conjunction wasn’t a onetime occurrence a couple thousand years ago, but was slated to occur again in the night sky on June 30 this year.

“The appearance of the sign (conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and Regulus) is not an unknown; it’s not magic,” he said. “What we just saw was extremely rare, but the scripture completely supports what just happened.”

Whether you want to look to the stars to see what’s out there and learn more about the universe or you want to appreciate the beauty that hovers above, the first step is to learn more about how to see what’s in the sky.

“They came to the class,” Rymer says of past students, “and now they’re on their back porches looking for this and that.”

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Amador stargazers01.jpg

• Astronomy classes at the HUB

7 p.m. on Sept. 26, Oct. 24, Nov. 28 and Dec. 19

• Gold Country Astronomers Club

• Astronomy Nights

Scenic Overlook, Calaveras Big Trees State Park

7:30 p.m. Sept. 10 and Oct. 15

7 p.m. Oct. 22 and Nov. 12

Free; park admission is $10 per vehicle or 795-1196

• Modesto Junior College Planetarium

Call 575-6196 or visit

Track the best meteor showers of the year at

• Star maps

• The Christmas Star

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