Reach for the sky

Jon and Susan Brewster built their home to be ideal to continue studying astronomy.

Photo by Emily Mentzer.
Jon and Susan Brewster built their home to be ideal to continue studying astronomy.

MONMOUTH — In the hills just outside of Monmouth, Jon and Susan Brewster built their home with one thing in mind: astronomy.

With the Great American Eclipse around the corner, it’s no coincidence that their property is situated perfectly, nearly on the center line for optimum viewing.

“When we found this property here, we said, ‘Yeah, we can do astronomy here for a long, long time,’ and we’re right dead-center for the eclipse, or pretty close,” Jon said. “And it’s been great.”

Jon and Susan said they’d always had an interest in astronomy, but didn’t begin developing the hobby until Halley’s Comet made its appearance near the earth in 1986.

“As a kid, I was involved in (astronomy),” Jon said. “Back in the ’80s, we got this (telescope) and controlled it with our computer. It was a little rough.”

Jon has worked as a software engineer since 1977, so programming his telescopes comes easily.

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Jon and Susan Brewster still use their first telescope to view the stars at their home outside of Monmouth.

“When we first got that little telescope out there, we unboxed it and put it together,” Susan recalled.

The directions that came with the scope said to find a bright star and tell the telescope the name of that star.

“We look at this bright star, and it turns out it’s Saturn,” Susan said. “And we can tell it’s Saturn right away because it has ears on it. And it was overpowering; it was spiritual; it was crazy. This is real.”

From then on, the Brewster’s commitment to astronomy has grown.

“We have enjoyed this hobby so much,” Susan said. “It keeps us home at night.”

Technology has come a long way since the 1980s, and so has the Brewster’s astronomy hobby.

The couple built a home around the infrastructure for an observatory, something Jon learned more about while working for two years as an engineer at the observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

After traveling back to Hawaii to view the total solar eclipse in 1991, the couple began to more seriously prepare for the Aug. 21 eclipse.

In 1991, none of Jon’s photos turned out. This time, he’s more prepared, with a filter on one telescope for the partial eclipse, another telescope programmed to photograph the totality, and a drone to capture the crowd of about 100 people invited to the Brewster’s property for the spectacle.

“A lot of the feel of the eclipse — there’s the scientific stuff and the wonder of it all, but really the crowd response is quite interesting,” Susan said.

The environment changes during totality, Susan said. Birds nest down and stop singing. The temperature drops. Planets and bright stars are visible.

“One of the fun things is the patterns on the ground,” Jon said.

When the sun shines through the trees, it isn’t just light going through, Jon said.

“Those are actually pinhole cameras showing you images of the sun,” he said. “During the partial phase, all those little dapples are going to turn into crescents.”

“It’s really neat,” Susan added. “You could use a Ritz cracker. You could use a sieve.”

Jon has been asked to present about the eclipse and how to best view it at various places in the valley, including a presentation at the Monmouth Senior Center at 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

“As we’ve gone to these, and people have asked questions, some of the questions are kind of scary,” Susan said. “Like, ‘I’m just going to watch it with my tanning glasses.’ No. You can’t do that.”

Eye safety is a big deal. During the roughly two hours of the partial eclipse — as the moon moves in front of the sun — certified solar glasses, solar filters, or welders lenses rated 14-plus must be used to protect eyes and equipment. Only for the less than two minutes while the moon eclipses the sun completely is it safe to view with the naked eye.

“There’s nothing weird about it,” Jon said. “It’s just the sun like always. We never stare at the sun. We don’t stare at the sun this time. During totality, there’s no sun to stare at. It’s safe.”

However, Jon and Susan have banned the use of binoculars at their viewing party.

“As long as you’re not using binoculars, at the end of totality, as the sun begins to come back, it’s not going to kill you. You’re going to turn away,” Jon said. “We glimpse the sun all the time when we’re outside or driving. It’s not that bad. Unless you’re using binoculars, telescopes or cameras.”

The magnification that comes with those tools can mean permanent damage to eyes in seconds, Jon said.

“We want people having a good experience and knowing how to protect themselves and their children, but also not terrified that the sun’s going to kill them,” Susan said.

Wherever you choose to view the Great American Eclipse, Susan said it will be amazing.

“You get a feeling for the vastness and where we live, because this is the shadow of the moon on the earth, and it makes it real for me,” she said. “Like seeing Saturn. It’s like, wow.”

The Itemizer-Observer will print stories each week on the Great American Eclipse through Aug. 23.

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