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Sonoma County Astronomical Society Striking Sparks to Inspire the Next Generation

2015 SCAS Striking Sparks
Winners of the 2015 SCAS Striking Sparks program pose with their Orion XT6 Classic Dobsonian telescope awards alongside proud sponsors, teachers and parents.

The hobby of stargazing gives backyard astronomers a unique perspective on the Universe. Seeing the light of a star in a telescope as it shines from hundreds of light-years away can begin a lifelong appreciation of science, and in some cases, spark an interest in pursuing a career in a scientific field. For 30 years and counting, the good folks of the Sonoma County Astronomical Society (SCAS) have helped introduce local students to astronomy through the Striking Sparks program. Striking Sparks began as a concept of Bob Ferguson, a pillar of the SCAS, who was searching for a worthwhile way to get young people interested in looking at stars, and to help "put ourselves and our world in perspective with the rest of the Universe" by using telescopes. The phrase "You never know what's going to strike the spark" resonated with Bob, and he began working fellow SCAS members to develop the Striking Sparks program to give telescopes as awards to sponsored local students who showed an interest in astronomy. Since then, Larry McCune and other generous SCAS members and sponsors have continued Bob Ferguson's legacy, and to date have awarded over 260 telescopes to budding astronomers. Initially, each award telescope was painstakingly hand-built by Bob, Larry and other SCAS members. Since 2006, Orion has been proud to have our XT6 Classic Dobsonian designated as the award for Striking Sparks winners.

We asked Larry McCune of the SCAS a few questions about the laudable Striking Sparks program, as well as his own astronomy experiences.

How did you first become interested in astronomy?
I was aware of astronomy by solar navigation and star locations as child. I later used stars and solar angles for surveying and time determinations.

What is it about astronomy that makes you the most excited?
I receive a great pleasure in sharing the enjoyment of astronomy with others. Striking Sparks and building the Robert Ferguson Observatory ( are examples of seeing the excitement of others with their first telescope view of the moon, planets, nebula and galaxies.

What is your favorite object or type of object to view?
Galaxies, and planets are the most interesting and challenging.

Please share one of your most interesting or memorable stargazing experiences.
Each year the Sonoma County Astronomical Society takes large telescopes to Yosemite for public outreach astronomy and Saturn is really tops for public excitement. The visitors can't understand that they are really seeing Saturn.

What Orion gear do you use?
We use the 6-inch Classic Dobsonian reflectors for the Striking Sparks winners and I use a lot of Orion parts for telescope building. We are presently building a one-meter telescope for the Robert Ferguson Observatory.

How and why did the Striking Sparks program begin?
The Striking Sparks program began with Bob Ferguson building a telescope with a student and Bob recruited me to assist him in building telescopes to award to students as a way to interest students in science and astronomy. This is the 30th year that telescopes have been awarded. Some of the telescope winners are now astrophysicists, engineers or people with an appreciation of astronomy.

Over the years, how many telescopes have been donated to young amateur astronomers through the Striking Sparks program?
We have awarded 261 telescopes as of March 11, 2015. We built the first 200 telescopes with hand ground and polished mirrors with the assistance of club members.

Has astronomy as a hobby changed your life or your family's life in any way?
Astronomy has become a big part of my adult life with building and awarding Sparks telescopes, public outreach, operating and maintaining the Robert Ferguson Observatory, volunteering for California State Park activities, Director of two astronomy organizations and building many telescopes including a one meter reflector.

What advice would you give to beginners who are interested in astronomy?
I would say to beginners that enjoy every opportunity to get involved and share your enthusiasm with others. Explore the resources available with astronomy clubs.