Wednesday, November 29, 2023

NASA Langley astronomy club brings distant galaxies close in Hampton Roads

The NASA Skywatchers club hold meetings every month and special viewings each season. The club hopes to continue to find areas that we can reach out to the public and share astronomy with the public, said Paul Tartabini, president of the Skywatchers club. (Photo courtesy of Paul Tartabini)
The Skywatchers Club holds meetings every month at the Poquoson Public Library and special viewings each season. They hope to share astronomy with the public, said Paul Tartabini, president of the Skywatchers Club. (Photo courtesy of Paul Tartabini)

Ever look up to the sky and wonder what’s up there?

A comet? A space station? A distant part of the solar system?

One Hampton Roads club is figuring it out right from their own backyard. 

“You go to a movie and you see planets,” said Jim Mack, a member of the the Skywatchers Club, which bills itself as “NASA Langley’s Astronomy Club.” “But most people don’t realize that you can just go to your back door and see different planets and galaxies.”

Astronomy enthusiasts in Hampton Roads have been gathering monthly since the 1970s to share telescopes and a fascination with the stars, according to Paul Tartabini, president of the Skywatchers Club. The group “is for people interested in astronomy as a hobby,” according to its webpage, and holds regularly scheduled observing sessions, including public events for viewing the stars.

“I didn’t think you could do much with telescopes when I was younger,” Tartabini said. “But the great thing about this club is it gives you the opportunity to use different and amazing equipment.”

The club also travels to North Carolina and western Virginia for “star parties,” where groups gather, away from city lights, to view the night sky and bond over astronomy, according to Tartabini.

Often, people bring expensive telescopes and astrophotography equipment that they share, allowing others to experience their powerful technology.

“Sometimes in astronomy some of the equipment can be an investment.” Tartabini said. “So it’s nice to go into a star party and find someone who has equipment to try.”

The club attends "Star parties," in North Carolina and Western parts of the state where there is less light pollution, according to Jim Mack, a member of the Skywatchers club since 1990. (Photo courtesy of Paul Tartabini)
The club attends “star parties,” in North Carolina and western Virginia, where there is less light pollution, according to Jim Mack, a member of the Skywatchers Club since 1990. (Photo courtesy of Paul Tartabini)

For Mack, the telescope makes all the difference. He has even built a few telescopes himself. 

Starting young

The group of approximately 30 members shares more than just a hobby. For many, it’s an interest that began when they were young.

“When I was a kid there was no internet,” Tartabini said. “If you wanted to see these things you had to go to the movies or figure it out on your own.”

As a child, Mack enjoyed studying the stars and learning from his father, who worked at NASA. The Skywatchers Club has allowed him to meet others with similar interests.

“Where else can you talk about the beginning of the universe, nebulas and black holes?”  Mack said.

When Mack first joined the club in 1990, he started to dabble in astrophotography, taking photos of astronomical objects, such as galaxies and stars. He remembers buying a compact digital camera with 32 kilopixels and standing outside, taking pictures of the planets and stars.

Today, astrophotography has become more advanced, according to Mack, but he’ll always have those early photos to look back on.

“Back then, I was taking pictures of the planets that anyone with film would’ve just killed to have,” said Mack.

The club, which is part of the NASA Langley Exchange, meets the first Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. at the Poquoson Public Library, according to its website; there is a $20 membership fee, and non members are welcome to attend meetings. 

Most of the club’s events take place outside of NASA and the club is open to the public, Tartabini wrote in an email.

The club tries to hold a viewing event each season, depending on the weather. Its spring viewing has been postponed due to an overcast sky, but Mack is looking forward to the next gathering.

“You just show up and things happen,” Mack said. “You can never predict exactly what you’ll be able to find.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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