Ask Joyce Jentges, president of the Northern Cross Science Foundation, a local amateur astronomy club, if she believes there’s life on other planets, and she smiles.
“When you’re looking through a powerful telescope at an object in a galaxy outside our Milky Way, you can’t help but wonder if someone is looking back at you,” Jentges said.
“With all the galaxies out there, it’s hard to believe that we’re the only planet capable of sustaining life. We don’t have the technology to see that now, but someday maybe. Hopefully, they’re treating their planet better than we’re treating ours.”
Jentges, who lives in Port Washington, has been fascinated by the planets and the beauty of the night sky since she was a child. Her parents gave her a telescope and she was hooked.
“I’ve always wanted to see the planets and what was out there,” Jentges said. “Most kids are fascinated by the universe, but then lose interest. I never lost interest. I honestly think my parents thought I was nuts because girls don’t normally do that.”
Her science teacher at Port Washington High School, Paul Quail, encouraged her interest and invited her to a Northern Cross meeting when she was 16. The club was based in Cedarburg at the time.
Jentges became one of the youngest members and the only female in the club.
“For the first couple of years, I was the only girl who went out with the guys to observe. Now, a couple of wives go, so I’m not alone any more,” Jentges said.
In 2006, the club built an observatory near Puckett’s Pond at Harrington Beach State Park in the Town of Belgium.
Northern Cross members hold public viewings several times a month at the observatory, which houses a 20-inch Panarusky telescope that club members built, a 9.25-inch Celestron telescope and 6-inch-diameter Criterion Dynascope. The observatory’s roof slides off to expose the sky.
Many of the observors are campers from the 70-unit campground that opened last fall near the observatory.
The group also sets up telescopes at Bayshore Town Square, Pike Lake State Park and for various public and private events.
Jentges enjoys introducing people to the celestial wonders almost as much as she enjoys viewing them herself.
“What gets me is the beauty of the objects. I like being able to find things — star clusters, nebulas, constellations,” Jentges said. “I like showing people things through the telescope they’ve never seen before and watching their reactions.
“I’m not mathematical at all. You start throwing numbers at me and I get lost. You don’t need to have that technical knowledge or bent to take a telescope out and be able to see things you can’t see with the naked eye.”
Jentges recently set up her telescope with a solar filter at Bayshore Town Square to view the sun. One elderly gentleman came back three times to look through her scope.
“He said, ‘I’ve never seen the sun like that before,’” Jentges said.
“When people see Saturn and its rings for the first time, they can’t believe it. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked, ‘That’s a picture right?’”
Jentges, a secretary at Sheboygan Falls Elementary School, brings her telescopes to school when students study the solar system.
“I want them to realize it’s not just something in textbooks. It’s something they can see and enjoy,” Jentges said.
When she first joined the club, she often stayed up all night to view meteor showers, comets and planets.
“We were just talking about finding 33 objects in one night,” Jentges said.
Jentges bought her first telescope in 1986, a Celestron scope with a 6-inch diameter mirror. In 2001, she purchased a 10-inch Meade Starfinder from a club member for $300 and added a solar filter.
Having the observatory 10 minutes from her home is nice, she said.
“The skies are reasonably dark. We’re trying to reduce some of the light pollution in the area,” Jentges said.
“With the campers, we have a built-in audience. We always have people lined up to look through telescopes. We don’t have too many local people, except for special events like the Halloween Hike. I wish more local people would come.”
Jentges lived in Kansas City, Kan., for six years, returning to Port in 2002. She remained a member of Northern Cross while she was away.
“I joined a club in Kansas, but it was such a large group. It wasn’t the same,” Jentges said. “Here, we’re like family.”
The club, which was formed in 1974, has 70 members from throughout the area and is growing steadily, she said. But the members are older.
“It’s kind of a graying hobby,” she said. “I think kids are so involved in sports, computers and video games that they don’t have the time.
“With the wealth of information on astronomy Web sites, they may get enough information to satisfy their curiosity. The yearning isn’t there to see it for themselves, but they don’t realize what they’re missing.
“I would like to get teenagers and younger members involved in the club to spark their interest so when they go to college and come back, they can return to the club and keep it going.”
More information on Northern Cross Science Foundation is on the Web site www.ncsf.info.
Photo by Sam Arendt