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This star search cast is celestial

Against the backdrop of an inky black sky draped over vast Lake Ontario, an amateur astronomer from Wilson and his friends help ordinary folks make extraordinary discoveries.

Stephen Smith will continue his free "Star Searches" two more times this year -- on Saturday and Oct. 16 -- starting at dusk at Krueger Park on Lake Road, just east of Route 425.

His monthly excursions into space began in April, and while a few of them have been rained out, Smith said that fall promises to be a good time to cast your eyes to the heavens.

"The air is steadier when it's cool, so you can see better," he explained.

Smith just reached his 30-year mark as a lab technician at nearby Pfeiffer Foods Inc., and said he's had a lifelong amateur interest in astronomy, boosted in recent years by his discovery of the Buffalo Astronomical Association.

He and a few of his fellow association members set up their telescopes and help folks find stars, planets, galaxies -- and even the international space station if it happens to be in the right place at the right time -- during the Wilson Star Searches.

"I started with a small refractor [telescope] and now have a 12-inch reflector, which breaks into two parts -- one part is 50 pounds and the other is 30 pounds -- so when I set it up, I don't want to move it," he said with a chuckle. "We also use a green laser pointer, which we can use to show the outline of the stars.

"One of the things I like about astronomy is that you can spend as much or as little on this as you want," he said. "You can just take a book out into the yard and use the naked eye to spot stars or use more expensive 'scopes like I use and the other members of the association use."

Smith said he and his fellow stargazers are happy to share the view through their equipment or teach fledgling astronomers how to use their own equipment. And, he said, they will be eager to point out a few spectacular finds, in particular, in the two remaining sessions for the year.

"Jupiter is very bright right now and will be in great position," he said. "And one of the favorites is the M-13 globular star cluster -- one of the biggest in North America. M-13 contains up to a half-million stars and you can see the individual stars when it's really dark.

"One I also love to show the kids is NGC-457, found in Cassiopeia," he continued. "It's an open star cluster that looks like ET, with two very bright stars for eyes, opening his arms. And, the Albeiro is a very beautiful double star, with two very distinct colors -- gold and blue. But I love to ask people what colors they see because everyone perceives color differently.

"The international space station may be going over then, also, and we'll look for that if it is," he said. "There's a Web site we check that gives us a 10-day forecast of where it will be. And we'll also look for a couple of galaxies -- M-81 and M-82 -- next to Draco the Dragon."

Smith is self-taught -- having devoured numerous books and magazines on the subject over the years -- and heads into his backyard with his telescope "on any good night."

"About three years ago, I found the Buffalo Astronomical Association and they meet from September to June, on the second Friday of the month, at Buffalo State College," he said. "The meetings are open to the public.

"They also conduct this type of star search session for the public at the [Audubon Society's] Beaver Meadow Nature Center [in North Java] on the first and third Saturdays of the month, from April to October," Smith said. "I had so much fun going to those that I thought I'd like to start this here in Wilson. I approached the Town and Village boards and they were very enthusiastic and helpful and told me I could use Krueger Park."

Alan Friedman, association president, said his group has a membership of about 150 "from all walks of life, who share an interest in astronomy, in particular, and in nature, and in the wonders of the night sky.

"Steve has been very enthusiastic about doing this in Wilson," said Friedman, who added that the association's Web site is www.buffaloastronomy.com. "We don't have that many members that far north, so he has taken it upon himself to organize this, and a lot of people have been enjoying it."

Smith scheduled three star searches last year, but the weather only cooperated for the October outing. The rain and cloud cover has wreaked havoc with this year's schedule, as well, most recently canceling the Aug. 8 program. But July was very successful, Smith recalled.

"There are lots of interesting things we'll look for (on Saturday and Oct. 16)," Smith said. "People just need to show up with their curiosity, and we'll take care of the rest."

The year 2009 has been named the "International Year of Astronomy," as it marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo's discoveries using a telescope, Smith said.

"One of the great things about astronomy is that you never stop learning," he said. "There's always something new."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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