Head out to the streets of Old Pasadena and Monrovia on the second weekend of each month, and you might find a giant telescope aimed at the heavens above. A crowd of people will just as surely be around it, studying the landscape of the moon or squinting toward the surface of Saturn.
The persons giving them the opportunity are the Sidewalk Astronomers, the husband-wife team of Morris Jones and Jane Houston Jones who form the local offshoot of a worldwide club which seeks to provide city dwellers with the ability to observe the skies as clearly as their brethren in countrysides and on mountaintops.
By extension, they also seek to inform people of issues like light pollution — the hindering of clear night views caused by the glow reflected into the skies from excessive artificial lighting.
“My job entails translating some of the science results for public consumption and sharing views of Saturn with people in communities all over the world,” explains Jane, who works for the outreach office of JPL’s Cassini Mission to Saturn.
“When Saturn is visible, I show Saturn from the sidewalks. When it isn’t visible, I show the rest of the solar system … really cool things.”
Jane was “a mild-mannered banker” in San Francisco in the early 1980s when she first developed her interest in astronomy. She took a class in the subject while looking for a hobby and settled on it because she wanted “to learn a lot and be outdoors,” and when she read it was better to build one’s own telescope and join an astronomy club, she dove in.
The fact that she got laid off from her job prompted her to move even further into astronomy, delving into it full-time at the California Academy of Sciences. She decided to volunteer and hope that her name would eventually carry enough weight to earn a position in the field.
“I thought it was the coolest thing to take these big homemade telescopes onto the sidewalk and show people the bright things that light pollution can’t destroy. I just on that day became an amateur astronomer and was not a JPL person yet,” she says, noting that she started working for JPL more than a year ago. “I’ve discovered I just loved going out on the sidewalk sharing views through telescopes.”
It was another 15 or 20 years before Jane was hired by JPL to help the public gain an understanding of NASA’s ambitious program in which the Cassini probe was sent to Saturn in order to provide the most comprehensive data yet from the planet. She and her husband moved down “instantly” when she learned she had won the position, packing her pets and 10 telescopes along with their more traditional household items. Morris didn’t mind the move because he was an astronomy hobbyist as well, and they had met while on an astronomy outing.
“My job is that I write, talk and share the excitement of viewing the planets through telescopes and share the excitement in my case of the mission to Saturn,” she says. “Saturn was the first object I looked at through my first homemade telescope, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Now, people certainly don’t expect to see stars and planets while out on an evening stroll or after dinner or a movie. The surprise is the fact that they can see it with their own eyes, without a Web site or picture, and it knocks people’s socks off.”
Jane notes that while there are only two official members of the local Sidewalk Astronomers — she and Morris — the group’s philosophy that everyone with a telescope should bring it out to share with their neighbors has taken root throughout the city.
“This month there’ll be much more to see from Pasadena on the 14th,” she says. “But what it comes down to is that rather than making people come to the telescopes, we like to bring the telescopes to them.”
The Sidewalk Astronomers will come to Old Pasadena, near the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue, Friday night.
For more information on their schedule, visit their Web site at http://www.ostastro.org.