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Meet Tom Spradley, an astronomer living under Baja’s dark clear skies

Date: 16/02/2015

The Baja Night Sky issues. Follow Tom’s amazing weekly column

stargazing

Gazing into the cosmos and wandering on the vastness of the universe is something that gets anyone’s attention, and being fortunate enough to watch the stars under the clear night skies of Baja is a pleasure not many can enjoy. Tom Spradley is one of those fortunate people that has been keeping track of his amazing astronomy hobby for the past 5 years. He now shares many amazing facts and alerts people about fascinating phenomena we can see on the dark clear sky.

Tom is a retired mathematics teacher with an interest in astronomy that established his home at the bay of La Ventana 15 years ago, where he studies the stars and galaxies and enjoys warm sunny winters.

Tom agreed to do a short interview to know a little bit more about him and his passion for astronomy:

When did your interest on astronomy begin and what made you wander into the cosmos?

Well, when I was 12 years old I saw an ad in Popular Science Magazine for a three inch telescope mirror. I think it cost me $5, and using a scrounged up yardage tube I built my first telescope. The first view of the craters on the moon had me hooked. I went on to study and teach mathematics, and take a few astronomy courses. I bought my second telescope at a garage sale, a large 13.5 inch Dobsonian reflector. When we had Roberta, editor of the Ventana View, over to our El Sargento home to look at the moon and planets through the telescope, she suggested I write a weekly column about what to look for in the Baja Night Sky. That was 10 years ago. I started keeping track of what I wrote about 5 years ago and just published Baja Night Sky #74. Along the way I have taken 5 online astronomy courses while in El Sargento.

How have you seen La Ventana change in the last 15 years?

Oh my, yes! When we moved on to our property in 2000, we could not see another house. There were no distracting lights. The night sky was unbelievably dark. It seemed like you could touch the stars. Everyone knew everyone else, and we relied on each other for knowledge and help. Almost everyone learned Spanish and interacted with the local Mexicans. There were three tiny markets, one hardware, one restaurant, and no electricity, internet, phone lines, or gas station. Fifteen years later, we have hundreds of new homes, dozens of businesses and restaurants, nightly music, a gas station, and a condominium with plans in the works for more. Street lights, home security lights, and a steady stream of cars often blot out all but the brightest stars. Maybe that is what we must put up with for progress, but I hope not. There are still a few locations where you are shielded from these intrusive nuisances. I will soon find out, but I am pretty sure Rancho Sotol is one of them. It is a 35 minute hike straight uphill from our home to the Rancho. I've been there during the day, and look forward to stargazing there some dark evening soon.

How did you find out about this place?

My son has been coming to Baja to windsurf or kite surf for 30 years. We flew down between semesters in 1997 to visit him, and ended up buying property before returning home. He is still here, teaching kiting, making repairs, and serving pizza with his Mexican partner at their by reservation, private-party-only pizza parlor in La Ventana.

What is it that made you decide to build a home here?

We are not surfers, but we were close to retirement and liked the idea of a place to winter, hike, and explore the wonders of a much darker night sky than the one we have in our home city of Sacramento. We also wanted to learn a second language and explore a different culture. Mexico and Spanish seemed to fill the bill. And the beautiful setting on Bahia de La Ventana with Isla Cerralvo, mountains to explore behind us, beaches to walk, and nearby ranchos still carrying on old traditions and arts, seemed like a good choice.

What type of telescope do you own?

I am using an old Dobsonian 13.5 inch reflector telescope that owners refer to as a light bucket. It is a heavy, clumsy instrument that must be guided by hand, but it is very stable, probably the most important characteristic of amateur astronomy telescope.

What are the top 3 most amazing things you’ve been able to witness?

Most amateur astronomers have a bucket list of a dozen or so things they hope to see during their lifetime, along with the hundreds of things available to view on any clear, dark night. I have been lucky to tick off a few of the most difficult in just the last three years. Last year, through my rooftop telescope here in El Sargento, we spotted the new supernova of 2014, an exploding star in a galaxy about 12 million light years away called M82. Supernovae are rare events, occurring every 400 years or so in our galaxy, and maybe one or two are spotted in other nearby galaxies each year. The one in M82 was relatively close. The year before that, I used a small $50 reflecting telescope rigged up to cast the image of the sun onto a small screen stretched over a large funnel connected to the telescope to watch the planet Venus cross the face of the sun. That was the last transit for over 100 years so I don't expect to see another one in my lifetime unless I am extremely lucky! The supernova of July 4, 1054, was recorded by the Chinese occurring in the constellation Taurus, and some astronomers believe it was also recorded in the cave paintings of Baja Indians as well. The remains of that explosion have been expanding at 1800km/sec for more than 960 years and appear through binoculars in very dark skies as a nebula. I have looked for it on several occasions, but only spotted it for the first time last week when my son brought several friends over to look at the moon and Jupiter. That was quite a thrill for all of us. I still want to see a total eclipse of the sun so I hope to be around during August, 2017, when we will have one passing over Oregon and across the United States.

Why do you think it’s important to know about astronomy?

Humans have been observing the night sky and trying to make sense of it for more than 200,000 years. The stars and their positions are constantly changing, but at a very slow rate as seen from Earth, so watching and trying to understand what is going on is a way to connect to our ancient ancestors. Astronomy is the oldest science with the oldest testable theories. By comparing what we see from night to night we can begin to understand how the universe works. We have been able to trace its history back over 13.8 billion years, and now understand how stars are born, live their lives, and in the process of dying, create and spread the elements we are made of. By studying the stars we are not only entertained by a sense of wonder, but also come face to face with our own place in the universe.

Besides looking at the stars, what other hobbies do you enjoy?

My wife and I like to hike, explore old ranchos, identify the plants and animals we see here. She sketches these things and makes greeting cards with her sketches, and I write about each one of her sketches. In this way we have slowly been learning about the natural history and culture of the small Mexican village we have made our home for the past 15 winters. I also do guided star gazing programs at Rancho La Duna north of La Paz, and at other locations by request.

If you’re interested on contacting Tom and learn more about what he does you can contact him at BajaNightSky@gmail.com

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