Telescope sales and stargazers are both looking up these days

Alan Dyer/VWPics/AP
Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) hurtles over the Columbia Icefields in Alberta's Jasper National Park on July 27, 2020. Sales of telescopes have surged during the pandemic, driven by social isolation and a series of notable celestial events.

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While many people have turned to Netflix to escape the darkness of living in a pandemic, others have found solace in a different kind of darkness: the night sky.

Celestial events like eclipses or comets typically trigger a surge in interest, but this year has been different, says Michael Bieler, president of telescope retailer Astronomics in Norman, Oklahoma. 

Why We Wrote This

In a year when so many people’s lives have been upended, many have found comfort in the quiet and predictable movement of the stars and planets.

Next Monday’s Saturn-Jupiter conjunction has generated excitement, but telescope sales have been through the roof all year. Mr. Bieler says his company is still filling backorders from the summer.

Telescope retailers aren’t the only ones who’ve seen a rise in interest. The monthly sky calendar put out by the planetarium at Michigan State University has seen a notable uptick in subscribers, says planetarium director Shannon Schmoll. 

You don’t need a telescope to explore the cosmos, Dr. Schmoll says. “You can just go outside and look up.”

“Right now, we’re all separated. We don’t get to see our families right now. We don’t get to see our friends. We don’t get to see other people. But all over the world, everyone sees the same stars,” she says. “And so we have that shared experience by going outside to look up … and that is something that can connect us.”

Marianne Denton was looking forward to seeing the rock band Tool in concert this summer with her husband and adult son. But then the pandemic hit, and the show was canceled. 

So Ms. Denton turned her attention to a different stage: the night sky. With the concert tickets refund, Ms. Denton bought her first telescope so that she could explore the cosmos from her backyard in Reno, Nevada. 

“It gives me a chance to explore when I can’t go anywhere,” Ms. Denton says.

Why We Wrote This

In a year when so many people’s lives have been upended, many have found comfort in the quiet and predictable movement of the stars and planets.

Ms. Denton isn’t alone. Telescope retailers typically see an uptick during celestial events like eclipses or comets. Indeed, a rare event next week, when Jupiter and Saturn align in what some are calling a “Christmas star” because of the timing, is generating stargazing excitement. It is predicted to appear in the sky on Monday evening, which happens to be the same day as the winter solstice.

But this year, sales have gone through the roof, no cosmic alignment needed.

“There’s no single day event that’s going to lift the entire industry as much as something like what we’re experiencing now where people have the time, they have the reason,” says Dustin Gibson, CEO of Oceanside Photo & Telescope in Carlsbad, California. In the company’s 74 years, he says, this is the largest influx of amateur astronomy customers ever.

Many more people have been gazing at the night sky during the pandemic, often seeking to fill voids left in their lives. With travel restrictions, theaters closed, parties banned, and concerts canceled, amateur astronomy offers a tantalizing replacement. 

“If I hadn’t gotten that ticket refund,” Ms. Denton says, “I would’ve gone to that concert and I wouldn’t have purchased a telescope.”

Finding connection from afar

The pandemic makes astronomy a fitting hobby, says Mr. Gibson. People can do it alone in their backyard. But it also offers ways to connect with others virtually, as people post their astrophotography on social media and share celestial experiences at a time when they can’t be physically together.

Furthermore, the night sky itself can be a unifying view, says Shannon Schmoll, director of the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. 

“Right now, we’re all separated. We don’t get to see our families right now. We don’t get to see our friends. We don’t get to see other people. But all over the world, everyone sees the same stars,” she says. “And so we have that shared experience by going outside to look up … and that is something that can connect us.”

Some amateur astronomers, like Mike Kieran in Palo Alto, California, have also found ways to share stargazing with a few friends in a socially distanced manner, setting up telescopes six or more feet apart under the same sky.

Gerry Broome/AP
Astrophotographer and amateur astronomer Johnny Horne gazes into the northern sky as he prepares to photograph comet NEOWISE at Grandfather Mountain in Linville, North Carolina, July 17, 2020.

“It rekindles one’s sense of wonderment,” Mr. Kieran says. “When you look at the night sky, you appreciate the depth and the distances and the scale and the unbelievable beauty.”

A cosmic boom 

The pandemic has been almost too good for telescope makers. 

“We’ve been sold out of telescopes really since the middle of summer,” says Michael Bieler, president of Astronomics in Norman, Oklahoma. Since his father founded the company in 1979, Mr. Bieler says this is the biggest boom they’ve seen – and the industry wasn’t prepared.

“It caught every manufacturer flat footed because they don’t have inventory,” he says. And as a result, some orders placed over the summer are just now being filled.

While many telescope orders this year have come from people exploring the hobby for the first time, Mr. Bieler says some of the boom has also come from what he calls “zombie astronomers.” 

These are people who bought or were gifted telescopes long ago but haven’t used them in perhaps decades. During the pandemic, they’ve sought to resurrect the hobby. Mr. Bieler estimates about 10% of phone calls this year have come from such customers looking for replacement parts or user manuals.

Tom Frazier in Vienna, Virginia, is one of those amateur astronomers who dusted off his old telescope. 

“I figured, well, if I can’t go anywhere, I’ll just go visit the planets,” he says.

Mr. Frazier had purchased the telescope 15 years ago to peer at Mars in a year when it was particularly prominent. But since then, the telescope and tripod had been collecting dust in his garage.

“It was like a reeducation. What I had managed to learn, I had forgotten,” he says. “There was a long time when I wasn’t using the telescope, but I’m still glad I bought it.”

Retailers aren’t the only ones who’ve noted a rise in amateur astronomy during the pandemic. The Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University puts out a sky calendar for stargazers to know what to look for each month. Not only has there been a notable uptick in subscribers, says planetarium director Dr. Schmoll, but many people who let their subscription lapse a decade or two ago have also renewed it this year.

“We can’t do a lot right now,” Dr. Schmoll says. “But people, I think, are also getting tired of screens and looking for a screen-free way of engaging.”

No telescope needed

The cosmos is accessible to anyone – you don’t need a telescope, says Dr. Schmoll. “You can just go outside and look up.”

With the naked eye, she says, you can watch the moon change phases. You can see planets. You can see meteor showers. “You can go outside and see this surprise comet that we had this summer,” she says, referring to the comet NEOWISE. “That was fantastic. That was a really nice bright point this year, pun intended.”

Another unique opportunity for stargazing comes this weekend into next week. Jupiter and Saturn currently appear in our night sky at the same time. And, in the twilight on Monday night, they will be passing so close to each other’s path that they might appear as one object, which is being called a “Christmas star.” Although the two planets’ paths converge every 20 years in our sky, they rarely pass so closely to each other and typically aren’t visible from Earth when they do. Saturn and Jupiter haven’t appeared this close together and visible from Earth in centuries

This celestial event is also particularly compelling for Earthlings, says Dr. Schmoll, because, as long as there are no clouds, you can see it from anywhere in the world – including in some places where light pollution blots out the stars. 

“We can all go outside and see Jupiter and Saturn converging, all over the world,” Dr. Schmoll says. 

Stargazing can also offer a much-needed escape from reality at a time when Americans’ mental health is growing precarious. During the pandemic, depression among adults has tripled and alcohol consumption has risen 262%, according to two studies in September in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“When it’s dark outside and you’re with a telescope and you’re looking at a nebula or a planet, that’s all you’re thinking about,” Mr. Bieler says. “It becomes like meditation. ... You are stuck in the moment and not worried about anything else outside of you.”

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