PEMBROKE, Maine — When Charlie Sawyer was 9 years old, his family moved from Brewer to Pembroke. Arriving at his new home after dark, Sawyer stepped out of the family car and was astounded at the number of stars he could see in the night sky.
That single glimpse ignited a passion in Sawyer, who now operates the Pembroke Observatory high above Cobscook Bay.
The two-room facility contains a classroom and meeting space along with a viewing room with a retractable roof. Photographs Sawyer has made using a special camera and computer program attached to his homemade telescope paper the walls. Charts of constellations and images of the solar system are all around. Telescopes and lenses await a viewer.
That childhood love of the night sky has turned into Sawyer’s lifetime avocation. As a boy, he began raking blueberries to earn the money for his first telescope. He took classes and eventually began giving classes at Washington County Community College and local elementary schools, and through the University of Maine in Orono.
“Students that are taking online courses in this area can come here for their fieldwork,” he said.
As he moved around the observatory, showing equipment, using the computers and talking about the sky, it was clear that Sawyer was like a kid in a candy store.
His passion is palpable.
“On a moonless night in Maine when the sky is clear, it is incredible,” Sawyer said.
In 1997, several hobbyists, including Sawyer, established the Down East Amateur Astronomers, a small club that gathers at the observatory every month for sky viewing and study.
Taking center stage is a homemade telescope Sawyer crafted using a large, cardboard, concrete form tube.
“It has an 8-inch concave mirror and is called a Newtonian telescope, because Isaac Newton invented it,” he said. The homemade telescope is 700 times more powerful than the human eye.
“But we astronomers don’t need high magnification,” he added. He said he can use a wide-field lens with a short focal ratio to take photographs of galaxies and star clusters.
“The key is light-gathering,” he said.
Sawyer’s telescope is attached to a clock-driven mount that tracks objects as the Earth moves. “That is critical for photography,” he said.
By using the same top-of-the-line software that the world’s major observatories use, Sawyer said, he can obtain amazing pictures. He has photographs of comets, meteors, galaxies, and planets and their moons.
“We have one to two dozen comets come into our inner solar system every year, but we don’t hear about them,” Sawyer said. “The debris from the comets is what creates meteor showers. We often have groups of people up here when there is a shower.”
Sawyer said February and March were particularly good viewing months, but May and June tend to be poor because of sea fog.
Many of his photographs show star clusters or nebulae that are thousands of light-years from Earth.
Sawyer said that in Maine’s rural areas, where there is little light pollution, Mercury and Venus are easily seen with the naked eye.
“They never stray very far from the sun,” he said.
Jupiter and Saturn are very bright and can be seen toward the southern horizon, he said, adding that a telescope is needed to see Saturn’s rings.
Although he admits he is not a lunar observer, he does occasionally view the moon.
“We are very insignificant here,” he said. “We are a really small planet, considering all that is out there.”
He said there are more visible stars in the universe than grains of sand in the world — billions of galaxies with billions of stars each.
With all that vastness, does Sawyer believe there is life beyond Earth?
“Yes,” he answered quickly. “There are no little green men picking people up and taking off with them, and we may not recognize it, but I believe there are other life forms out there.”
Sawyer welcomes families and groups to his observatory.
“Curiosity is the only admission charge around here,” Sawyer said.
Arrangements for a visit must be made ahead of time. He can be reached at 214-5706 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. The club’s website is www.downeastaa.com.