“How much do you know about dark matter?” Jack St. Louis asked.
He stirred the black coffee before him, slowly adding the eggnog he’d brought along in a travel tube.
“See that?” he said, as the nog spun tighter and tighter in a cyclone fashion, breaking up the void of joe. “That’s how galaxies are formed.”
St. Louis presides over the Vermont Astronomical Society, a group of amateur astronomers who meet the first Monday of each month at the Brownell Library from 7:30-9 p.m.
Members range from high-schoolers to retirees, but all are welcome to join. Each meeting features a guest speaker, question and answer period and camaraderie with other celestially-inclined Vermonters.
Up to 35 people attend the monthly meetings in Essex Jct., secretary Paul Walker said. He’s attended meetings since the 1980s and helps produce the “Morning Star,” a newsletter filled with club member observations and photos. According to St. Louis, the society is a great place to get acquainted with an ancient activity.
“A lot of telescopes sit in a garage or a closet and never get used,” he said. “People have trouble with them.” But that’s where society members come in, able to help newcomers see stars.
St. Louis joined in 1966, two years after the now-54-year-old club formed. He helped found the junior astronomical society while a student at Burlington High School.
Like vagabonds, the society members moved across the county from farm to farm setting up temporary observation buildings wherever landowners were amenable to their presence. Initially, the crew built structures with removable roofs they’d hoist on and off with sheer muscle.
“Our first observatory was 8×8, terribly built construction,” St. Louis said. “To observe we’d have to get four guys to lift the roof off and put it on the ground.”
But eventually they refined their designs using a track system and roller skate wheels to slide the roof away for easier viewing. One of the young society’s greatest achievements was building a two-story clubhouse and observatory on a property in Underhill.
They asked a landowner on Poker Hill Road if they could construct some observation space on his property.
“He was really open to kids doing good stuff without getting in trouble,” St. Louis said. They leveled a rubble area, poured concrete and crafted their meeting space. Inside, they placed an antique 1905-era telescope designed by Alvan Clark, on loan from the University of Vermont.
Today, the clubhouse has crumbled, but the remains of the observatory still stand, St. Louis said, adding he hasn’t returned for fear the image might taint his memory of that special time.
The society then moved to a temporary location in Williston until it reached its current space in Hinesburg in 1993. There, they’ve built two observation sheds with rolling roofs and a warming hut for cold nights.
The society’s paying members have varying degrees of access, but non-members can request guest access to the site, according to Walker.
The club also hosts eclipse viewings, children’s summer programs and other community outreach events. They’ve even held mirror grinding classes to help folks make their own telescopes, according to St. Louis.
“When you’re done, you get a piece of glass you shaped by hand, and you’re looking at galaxies millions of lightyears away,” he said. “That is really cool.”
According to St. Louis, amateur astronomy is important for a host of reasons: “Professionals never look up; they look down at computers and screens,” he said. “They never go outside and look up, but we do.”
Indeed, looking up has led several society members to some noteworthy observations. One member co-discovered a nova with 7×35 binoculars, and another logged over 1,200 asteroid viewings.
“You get to see all the beautiful things up in the sky,” St. Louis said, adding those interested in astronomy can drop in on the society’s meetings or connect with them on social media.
“[Space is] just so interesting and so unreachable, so distant, so ancient, but beautiful,” he said. “The biggest kick is sharing it with others who don’t have the chance to see through a scope.”