August 04, 2020

Charlotte friends reach for the stars > Men share telescope, hobby with neighbors

CHARLOTTE — Frank Davenport and Charlie Sawyer are buddies as well as backyard sky-watchers. And when the amateur astronomers study the night sky, they look through what is probably one of the largest telescopes in the state.

Their Newtonian telescope uses mirrors to reflect the stars through a long tube to an eyepiece. To simplify the scientific description of the telescope’s power, Sawyer said that last week, when they used a 15 mm eyepiece to look at the star Vega, it was magnified 150 times the size it appeared to the human eye.

The telescope is mounted on a tripod and has a clock drive that moves it as the Earth moves. “If you put it on any star, it will stay on that star,” Sawyer said. “As long as you leave that telescope on, it will not leave that star. … It moves slowly, like the hour hand on a clock.”

Davenport and Sawyer met in 1995, at an activity at the Charlotte Elementary School. Sawyer had built a small telescope, and he took it to school and set it up so people could look through it. Davenport took a papier-mache replica of the space shuttle.

“When I walked into the gym after I set up the telescope,” Sawyer said, “I said, `Wow.”‘ The space shuttle Davenport had built was 19 feet, 4 inches high.

The two men had a lifelong interest in astronomy, and their common interest in the sky made them fast friends.

Davenport said that it had been his dream to own a large telescope, and in 1997, he learned that an amateur astronomer in Topsfield wanted to sell his telescope and observatory. He said he made wreaths and sold brush to raise money to buy it. Although he won’t say how much he paid for the telescope and building, he said he thought he got a bargain.

In April 1997, he and Sawyer moved the building, with the retractable roof, and telescope to Davenport’s property in Charlotte.

The two men organized Down East Amateur Astronomers, a group that now has 12 members. They donate their time to Charlotte Elementary School where they teach astronomy two Fridays a month.

Last week youngsters at the Charlotte Elementary School eagerly switched their day class to a night class so they could look through the Charlotte Observatory telescope.

The lights at the school were dimmed to help the youngsters’ eyes adjust to looking into the dark night sky. The pupils’ lunch break that day was actually a supper break.

When Davenport and Sawyer arrived at the observatory, they pushed the roof back by hand and cranked the telescope to an upright position pointed at the sky. It took several minutes before they had the telescope trained on a star.

Although they had hoped to look at a wide range of heavenly bodies, last week, a heavy cloud cover forced the kindergarten children to focus on only a single star, Vega. That did not deter their enthusiasm, as they climbed a tall ladder to gaze through the eyepiece.

Later, as the clouds parted, some of the older pupils were also able to observe the planets Jupiter and Saturn.

Like most amateur astronomers, Davenport and Sawyer hope to find something new and unnamed in the sky, perhaps a comet. “It takes a lot of patience to do something like that,” Sawyer said.

Next to the observatory is the clubhouse where the members of the Down East Amateur Astronomers meet. In February, the two men will offer an adult education class called Introduction to Astronomy. Anyone who would like to take the course or join the club can contact Davenport at 454-2450 or Sawyer at 726-4621.

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