When some people look up at the night sky, they see a signal for sleep. When others look up, they see the potential for discovery.
Once in a blue moon, something astronomical spurs national attention. This last happened on July 4, when the Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter to observe the largest planet in the solar system.
What about people who take store-brand telescopes and look through them, regardless of the headlines? Some local hobbyist astronomers talk about why they continually gaze into the heavens.
Looking at the sun
James Ambrister, 59, considers himself a solar astronomer. Ambrister is an employee of the Oxford school system and member of the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project.
When he isn’t working, he takes some of his eight telescopes and sets up in the heat of the day and allows anyone to look through them.
"I have a hydrogen alpha telescope, which is good for observing solar flares and solar prominences," Ambrister said during one such viewing session at the Oxford farmers market in June.
Ambrister’s equipment cost thousands of dollars and was donated by CBSAP executive director Stephen Ramsden.
"We have the sun up there and a lot of people take that for granted," Ambrister said. "Solar flares and coronal mass ejections are known to disrupt electronics, so we as a society should know about it."
Sterling DeRamus, 55, is an attorney, retired Navy Reserve officer and president of the Birmingham Astronomical Society.
"I like to hunt galaxies — the farther, the better," said DeRamus. Hunting galaxies isn’t difficult to do with his 9 ¼-inch Celestron telescope, which retails for more than $1,000.
"I believe in the promotion of science in general and the power of science to better our lives," DeRamus said.
James Rayburn, a professor of biology at Jacksonville State University, uses astronomy as a family bonding tool with his wife, twin daughters and stepson.
"We have a fire pit, and sometimes we’ll roast marshmallows and look at the night sky," said Rayburn. "We all deal with different aspects of astronomy."
Biology in space
Richard Watkins, also a professor of biology at JSU, grew up near the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where his father worked. He was exposed to science at a young age.
"It’s weird to see something taking off from your backyard and your dad telling you it’s going to another planet," Watkins said.
Watkins witnessed the Challenger space shuttle explosion on Jan. 28, 1986, which killed all seven astronauts aboard.
"All the stuff from the shuttle fell from the sky for five minutes," Watkins said.
Watkins said he was interested in learning more about the solar system, but he spoke a lot about astronomical theories dealing with the expanding universe and multiple star systems. He also spoke about biology — his area of study — in space.
Watkins pointed out that extremophiles — microorganisms that live in high acid or low temperatures — have been found on Earth, and "we know they may be out there, maybe on one of Jupiter’s moons, maybe somewhere else.
"Some people say astronomy has no direct effect on people," Watkins said. "Then we might as well get rid of art. We couldn’t have music. We couldn’t have culture."
To Watkins, the importance of astronomy boils down to one concept: "We are the embodiment of the universe trying to understand itself."
Marie McBurnett is a freelance writer for The Anniston Star.