The Warren Astronomical Society, photographed at the society’s picnic in 2018 at the Stargate Observatory, in Ray Township.

The Warren Astronomical Society, photographed at the society’s picnic in 2018 at the Stargate Observatory, in Ray Township.

Photo provided by Jon Blum


At 60, Warren Astronomical Society still reaching for the stars

By: Brian Louwers | Metro | Published November 17, 2021

 Warren Astronomical Society volunteers partner with local libraries to arrange telescope loaner programs, demonstrate telescope use and offer presentations about astronomy and space science for free.

Warren Astronomical Society volunteers partner with local libraries to arrange telescope loaner programs, demonstrate telescope use and offer presentations about astronomy and space science for free.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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METRO DETROIT — Looking to keep their father busy in his twilight years, Jon Blum’s adult children bought him a telescope as a retirement gift 20 years ago, when he wrapped up his career as a dermatologist.

It was meant to be an easy thing to use, to pass the time with a new hobby. But that wasn’t the case at all. He needed help at first back in 2002.

“I could not figure out how to use it or find anything in the sky with it,” said Blum, now 77, of Novi.

His frustration and curiosity led him to the Warren Astronomical Society, one of Michigan’s oldest and largest groups of amateur astronomers. The group was formed in 1961, fueled by a renewed interest in astronomy during the space race and the Cold War.

The W.A.S. now has about 180 paid members on its roster that continues to grow, even — and especially — now as hybrid meetings and programming made necessary by the pandemic has expanded its reach far beyond the Detroit area’s orbit.

“They showed me how to use it,” Blum said of his first telescope, a Meade ETX-90. “I thought this was a one-time lesson and I’d know everything. That’s how little I knew.”

Blum’s path to seeing the stars as an amateur astronomer led to more activity and engagement than his well-intentioned kids likely envisioned. When he began going to W.A.S. “star parties” to look at the heavens above with others, the group’s members encouraged him to check out their indoor meetings and lectures, where members and guest speakers explore a range of related science topics.

“Every time I went, they kept telling me, you need to come to the indoor lectures and learn about this stuff, and I said, no, I just want to learn how to see the pretty stuff in the sky,” Blum said.

That changed when he finally did start attending lectures, hosted by the W.A.S. and other astronomy groups across southeastern Michigan that he joined as a result of his growing interest. He also upgraded to a Celestron 8-inch telescope.

“Once I found out how great it was, I couldn’t stop,” Blum said. “And I was retired. I had the time.”

 

Where the stars align for amateur astronomers
Diane Hall, 41, of Dearborn, is the group’s longest-serving president of the new millennium. She’s been involved in the W.A.S. since the end of 2006 but grew up fascinated by the night sky in California.

She got married in 2004, and Jonathan, her spouse, already had some information about the W.A.S. from events earlier in the decade, including the planetary alignment of May 2000, when Earth aligned with Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Jonathan’s physics professor also worked at the Cranbrook Institute of Science, where the group’s members met once a month before the pandemic and where they hope to return.

“We were aware that there was this club that met in the basement of the Cranbrook Institute of Science, and we said, ‘OK, let’s check it out,’ and we were hooked,” Hall said. “We were hooked because we didn’t know what we were in for. We were afraid that they might be UFO enthusiasts, to be perfectly honest. Instead, it was just this incredible organization of interesting, funny people who were into everything: observing, and history, and space travel, and a bit of philosophy, to be honest, cosmology.

“The culture of the club really hooked us because it was so wide ranging and because it wasn’t just based on what you could do with a telescope. You could use your mind, your imagination. Thought experiments were encouraged, and so it was just a really fun, eclectic place and it fit really well,” Hall said.

Bob Trembley and Constance Martin-Trembley, of Clinton Township, met in a science fiction club at Michigan Technological University, in Houghton. They didn’t have an astronomy club there at the time, but they’d always talked about joining one. Trembley finally did join the W.A.S. in 2011, when he was 51.

He is now on the group’s board and handles public outreach.   

“I wish I would have known about the W.A.S. when I was a teenager because I would have been all over it,” said Trembley, now 61. “They are an absolutely great bunch. They are passionate about astronomy and love sharing their passion with the public.”

Martin-Trembley teaches science at Endeavor Middle School, in Ray Township, where she and Bob host an astronomy club called the “Endeavor Space Academy.”

“We’ve always been interested in space,” Martin-Trembley said. “We’re of that generation where we actually watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.”

She said they grew up in a “fascinating time of watching the late ’60s and early ’70s, the height of the space program and NASA, and watching the launches and Apollo missions.”

“Those were things that brought the entire world together. That’s kind of the generation we grew up in,” Martin-Trembley said. “We always went out and looked up. It’s harder nowadays. Because of the advent of cellphones, people tend to look at their phones, so our goal, our message is simply, step out and look up.”

As a teacher, she realizes that some children and adults don’t know the basics of astronomy because we don’t tend to rely on, or even notice, what’s going on beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Everyone in the club, she said, is also a teacher through their outreach activities and interaction with others eager to learn.

“It does serve the purpose of getting people to notice the sky above them, and that as a race is incredibly important,” Martin-Trembley said. “It was once what drove civilization. They relied on the constellations for planting, for telling the seasons, when they were going to harvest. This was all driven by the night sky. Then, we got away from that and now, with light pollution, we can’t see the night sky as much as we could, and you have to go to dark sky parks to be able to see the amount of constellations that we can actually see.

“When it is an astronomy club, that is the ultimate goal — to teach people about the night sky. What’s going on up there? There is a tremendous amount going on up there,” Martin-Trembley said.

 

A universe of opportunities for learning, exploration
While most in-person meetings and activities remain on hold because of the pandemic, the W.A.S., under normal circumstances, would meet twice a month: on the first Monday, at Cranbrook, in Bloomfield Hills, and on the third Thursday, on the South Campus of Macomb Community College, in Warren. Those meetings are being held virtually for now.

Before COVID-19, they also hosted a free monthly “star party” at the group’s own Stargate Observatory on 29 Mile Road, in Ray Township, every fourth Saturday of the month at dusk. Members say it is a big draw for scout troops, families and other groups interested in checking out the sky through the society’s own 12.5-inch f/17 Cassegrain telescope, built under a steel dome. The club also owns a 22-inch Dobsonian telescope.

As a member of the Great Lakes Association of Astronomy Clubs, the W.A.S. takes part in the “Astronomy on the Beach” event held annually in September, most recently at the Island Lake Recreation Area, in Wixom. The event has grown in popularity over the years. While the in-person gathering was suspected during the pandemic, the event reportedly drew a crowd of 5,000 people in 2019, with dozens of telescopes.

The W.A.S. fields a large team of outreach volunteers dedicated to bringing astronomy education to the public. They partner with local libraries to arrange telescope loaner programs, demonstrate telescope use and offer presentations about astronomy and space science for free.

“If you want us to talk about astronomy and space science at your school or venue, we can find people to do it for you. That’s pretty cool,” Trembley said. “We have a ton of people who are just passionate about astronomy.”

Several W.A.S. members, including Trembley and Martin-Trembley, are also volunteer NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassadors. Part of a group of volunteers across the country, they work to share information about science and discoveries related to NASA missions.

While the society is hoping to return to in-person meetings and programs soon, hybrid and virtual options have allowed them to extend their reach to people who couldn’t normally attend. Among them is astronomer David Levy, co-discoverer of the comet now known as Shoemaker-Levy 9 that fragmented and collided with Jupiter in the early 1990s.

Explore the W.A.S. for yourself

There are many ways to follow, learn about and get involved with the Warren Astronomical Society. The group’s website is www.warrenastro.org. There, you’ll find a link to a “Meetup” page that shows a list of upcoming events, monthly meetings and scheduled presentations. You’ll also find them on Facebook.

Individual memberships in the Warren Astronomical Society cost $30 for a year, $22 for seniors and $17 for students. All memberships can be upgraded to a family membership for an additional $7.

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