How was the meteor show last night?” a passer-by asks, referring to the Camelopardalids, hyped by the media as possibly the best meteor shower of the year.
“They fizzled,” says the mustached man sporting a polyester star-themed shirt and ball cap, rigging up a large Dobsonian scope that looks both vintage and crazy futuristic at the same time. His tone sounds slightly as if he wasn’t surprised.
Dave Buhrman, the man behind the reflecting mirror, is rigging up more than a few exciting telescopes atop Greenbrier Mountain at The Greenbrier Sporting Club’s Summit Lodge. It is Memorial Day weekend and families are shuffling into the restaurant for a holiday dinner.
“But don’t worry,” Buhrman says to the lady. “Jupiter will be out in ten minutes and we’ll get a fantastic view of Saturn around 9:45.”
“I like to have Jupiter, Saturn, or Earth’s Moon above the horizon when sharing with others after dark, because they are instantly awesome to view,” Buhrman explains. “A telescope is more like a musical instrument. The more knowledge and skill you bring to the eyepiece, the more you are going to get out of the experience.”
True to his word, Jupiter creeps out of the western sky in just a few minutes. In fact, Buhrman says it’s the earliest at night that he’s ever been able to view it. A group of twenty-somethings hop off of a shuttle just as he punches the coordinates into the computerized go-to mount.
Before heading into the lodge, the kids mosey on over to see what all the bustle is about. Buhrman points out Jupiter low in the darkening sky, through the narrow branches of an obstructing tree. As he finishes entering the coordinates, the 8” Celestron telescope rotates on its heavy-duty tripod and fixes itself straight at Jupiter.
The twenty-somethings line up at the telescope and Buhrman explains to the group how to use the focus knob on the scope. The first one to the scope lights up as he announces to everyone else that he “sees it!” Buhrman works with the college student to locate three of Jupiter’s visible moons and one-by-one each of the group stares through the void at our 4.5 billion-year-old neighbor on the other side of Mars. “Science is so cool,” I imagine one of them saying as they walk into the lodge moments later.
Dave Buhrman is the owner and personality behind WV Sky Tours—a one-man show that shares the wonders of the universe through the video screens, demonstrations, and telescopes he carries on his truck.
“As a vegetable grower with winters off, I became interested in learning more about our stunning West Virginia night skies about seventeen years ago,” says Buhrman, who developed one of the vegetable fields adjacent to his farmhouse into a “dark site” free of skyglow. “Earth, after all, is a self-contained ship with a crew of seven billion humans, plus plants and animals, through space,” he says. “Shouldn’t we explore a little more than just the cabin we’re quartered in?”
Buhrman, ever the collector of astro-trivia, keeps an old sky book handy, with facts, data, and thoughts scribbled in the margins and blank pages. He points out one he just wrote down the day before, after reading an article. ““Earth weighs a hundred tons more each day due to falling space dust,” he reads from his hand-scrawled notes.
“That’s just mind boggling,” he says, looking up.
In fact, astronomical sizes and distances can indeed be mind boggling for the average person to comprehend. To show me how short our perception of time is compared to space-time, he says, “Even the concept of ‘right this very moment’ is blurred if we are looking at a galaxy 65 million light years away. Despite light’s incredible speed of 186,000 miles per second, that galaxy is still so distant that we’re seeing tonight the light that left it 65 million years ago. Anyone living there looking towards us observing the Milky Way also sees our galaxy the way it looked very long ago. And, if you imagine an astronomer there with such an incredibly powerful telescope that he can observe Earth…well...he’ll be watching dinosaurs roaming our planet. For him, the human race does not exist yet. A telescope is literally a time machine.”
Buhrman further illustrates his point by reading a passage from the book Seeing in the Dark, by Timothy Ferris: Two and a quarter million light years away lies the Andromeda galaxy. It is steeply inclined to our line of sight, only fifteen degrees from edge-on. Since the visible part of its disk is roughly one hundred thousand light years across, the starlight reaching our eyes from its more distant side is a hundred thousand years older than the light we simultaneously see coming from the near side. That means, when starlight from the far side of Andromeda started its journey, Homo habilis, the first true humans, did not yet exist. By the time the near-side light started out, they did. So, within that single field of view lies a swath of time that brackets our ancestors’ origins.
With the popularity of astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s new show, an updated reboot of Carl Sagan’s classic The Cosmos, there has definitely been an uptick in interest in the universe.
“I try not to get audiences too bogged down with the technical details of astronomy,” Buhrman says. “Most people are just trying to learn something about the night sky. After all, this is the first known science of the human species. The earliest cave drawings show the Sun, Moon, and constellations of stars. So my goal as an ‘informal educator’ is to bridge the gap between scientific jargon and average sky watcher’s curiosity. Modern science has flown us to the Moon and all this new knowledge deserves to be understood and appreciated.”
Sky Tours’ accessibility lies in the fact that Buhrman’s equipment is mobile and that he brings the “show” to you. Included in his collection is a Coronado PST Hydrogen-alpha dedicated solar telescope. Equipped with Denkmeier Binoviewers this special filtering scope can reveal magnificent safe daytime views of the Sun’s granulations, facula, sun-spots, prominences, and solar flares.
Aside from the aforementioned Celestron, which looks more like what most of us think of as a telescope, Buhrman also has a large Nightsky Truss Dobsonian, with a Royce mirror capable of gathering 3000 times the light of the human eye. Buhrman calls it a “light bucket,” and it has been fully computerized to track thousands of celestial objects.
John Dobson (1915-2014), a former Vedanta monk in California, revolutionized astronomy by making large mirrored telescopes accessible to the public on every continent with his simple inexpensive “cannon” design that traps pale light in a way that the human eye cannot. It takes a big mirror to gather enough light to see those faint distant objects.
“To overcome the weight problem,” Buhrman explains, “his design has the heavy primary mirror secured in a wooden box close to the ground on rocker arms that allows for pointing anywhere above the horizon. His passion for sharing the Universe led to him becoming co-founder of Sidewalk Astronomers, now a world-wide organization that encourages amateurs to share their telescopes and knowledge with others on busy city streets and in national parks.”
Aside from his mobile exhibit, Buhrman also hosts events at his “dark site” north of Lewisburg. What sounds like a CIA interrogation site is actually a great spot to view the heavens away from man-made light pollution. This allows viewers to gaze upon the Milky Way band, or hunt for meteors and satellites with just the naked eye. And, once your eyes have adjusted to the darkness the telescopes will reveal much more.
Buhrman also operates a Starlab for Carnegie Hall and local schools. Starlab, and its sister the Cosmodome, are portable planetariums that allow him to accurately simulate the dome of the night sky for audiences.
“These are incredible teaching tools,” he says. “Being able to simulate the night sky during the daytime in a school gym or auditorium greatly enhances the learning experience.”
WV Sky Tours continues to offer public and private exhibitions throughout the region. For more information about booking Buhrman and his portable, interactive exhibit, visit www.wvskytours.com