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Nebraska: Energy and Gazing at the Cosmos on a Summer Night

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted July 20, 2017

People have been fascinated by celestial bodies since antiquity. Cave drawings, such as those as Lascaux, France, include depictions of the stars. The Pleiades and Orion are mentioned in the book of Job, one of the oldest in the Bible.

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Next week, some modern descendants of those ancient star-gazers will congregate in one of the remotest parts of Nebraska for the annual Nebraska Star Party, July 23-28 at Snake Campground at the Merritt Reservoir. Since 1994 the event has attracted hundreds of people eager to capitalize on the dark nothingness in a sparsely populated patch of the Great Plains that’s mostly unspoiled by human illumination. They come, they camp, they scan the heavens. This video from the 2015 event captures the flavor of the setting, you know, with the lights on:

This part of Nebraska is dark enough to see many of the night’s lights with the naked eye, but Clete Baker, an organizer for the five-day star party, says most participants will opt for enhancing devices – most of them made with natural gas and oil:

“We'll have everything from 3- and 4-inch tabletop [tele]scopes all the way up to 30-inch monsters. Some are rudimentary and home-built. Others are sophisticated and manufactured. It's a very broad cross section. And, of course, binoculars are also popular.”

Manufacturing Magnification

Binoculars like those used at the star party range in power from 7x50 to 20x110. According to, the first number refers to how many times a view is magnified; the second number is the diameter in millimeters of the large lenses at the end of the binocular. So, 20x110 is an enormous set of binoculars, magnifying a view 20 times through 110-millimeter lenses that are more than 4 inches across.

Enter energy, which improves our ability to marvel at the heavens, just as it improves so many other activities. No matter the power, size and design of the telescope or binoculars, they all use glass lenses and mirrors to bring the far away closer, the core components of which are made using natural gas.

Magnifying lenses are manufactured with optical glass. This is made of silicon dioxide and is purer and more uniform than regular glass. During production, natural gas is used to heat glass furnaces, which melt the silicon dioxide and other raw materials into a liquid. To reach liquid form, the furnaces must be heated to about 2820 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to force the air bubbles to the surface. The liquid glass then is stirred constantly until it reaches about 1830 F, when it is poured into lens molds. After it cools, it is reheated in natural gas furnaces to about 1020 F, removing internal stresses. The lens blanks are then cut, ground and polished into the kind of lens needed for telescopes and binoculars.

In addition to the lenses, telescopes and binoculars also use mirrors or prisms to reflect the image from the lenses to our eyes as we look through them. And like the lenses, natural gas is used to produce them. For these mirrors, natural gas is mixed with oxygen to generate temperatures hot enough to work borosilicate glass. Once the mirror glass is shaped in a mold, a thin, smooth coating of aluminum is applied and heated and a negative electro-static charge is applied to the surface of the lens so the positively charged aluminum ions are attracted to it. A similar process is followed with a coating of silicon dioxide, which protects the surface of the mirror.

Nebraska Shareable: A Powerfull View

From Parts to the Galaxy

As philosopher and astronomer Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This rings true for telescopes and binoculars, as the lens and mirrors by themselves don’t bring the stars and planets to you. They need to be part of something more complete. And in most cases, modern telescopes and binoculars use petroleum-based products in their construction.

The body of a telescope or set of binoculars is made up of an array of different materials, including heavier steel or steel-and-zinc alloys and lighter materials, like aluminum or acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene plastic, a product derived from petroleum commonly called ABS. Additionally, petroleum-based lubricants are used to make the telescope and mount move more smoothly.

Making a Party of It

According to Baker, people travel for hundreds of miles to attend the star party each year:

“I would say that most people come from the central part of the U.S.: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, the Dakotas, Missouri. However, we've historically drawn attendees regularly from both coasts and the south, as well as Canada.”

Energy also plays a role in getting the star gazers to the event. This includes gasoline and diesel to power cars and RVs driven to the remote location, as well as petroleum-based nylon and polyester used in tents and sleeping bags for those who choose to camp – since the closest hotel is more than 30 minutes away.

Next week, as darkness overtakes the Nebraska sky, hundreds of astronomers, both professional and amateur, will gather in the remote countryside to soak in the beauty of the cosmos – with the same wonder as the ancients. And energy will be there, helping bring everything into the clearest possible focus.

Nebraska Energy Shareable: Star Power

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Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.