Living among the stars

Updated 4:58 PM EDT, Wed March 30, 2016
01:48 - Source: CNN
Up all night with a village of star gazers

Story highlights

Two astronomers founded the Deerlick Astronomy Village in 2005 as a good place to stargaze

The village is on a rural 96-acre plot of land with little light pollution, where six people live full time

DAV hosts a star party every October for a week of stargazing with fellow astronomy hobbyists

(CNN) —  

Chris Hetlage and Donavan Conrad were looking for a specific piece of land – one where they could observe the night sky free of the light pollution caused by artificial light.

They wanted to build a community of like-minded astronomy hobbyists who appreciated the beauty of the dark sky. After two years of searching, they purchased a 96-acre lot in rural Georgia, two hours east of Atlanta.

They named it the Deerlick Astronomy Village, after a collection of galaxies in the northern sky.

Today, most of the owners of the 23 homes in the DAV live there part-time.

Jane Kuehn and her husband, John, are two of the six full-time residents. Five years ago, they retired and left their five-bedroom suburban home in Rockville, Maryland, and moved to Georgia. They now live in a 10-by-35-foot RV with their 100-pound dog, Bobo. Their shower, washer, dryer, refrigerator and freezer are all outdoors. Kuehn says downsizing their life “took about a heartbeat. We were following our passion, so we didn’t really give up anything.”

Kuehn describes her husband as “one of those prodigies” who was always interested in astronomy, even as a kid. Over their 51 years of marriage, they went to various astronomy symposiums and lectures, but it wasn’t until 10 years ago that she put her eye up to a telescope to see the Orion Nebula and finally understood what fascinated John about the universe.

The Kuehns first learned about the DAV in 2007 when they attended a star party, an event that the community hosts every October through the Atlanta Astronomy Club, where hundreds of astronomy enthusiasts camp out on the grounds for a full week of stargazing.

By the end of the week, the Kuehns had put a deposit down on a plot of land.

Back in Maryland, Jane Kuehn had worked as a lobbyist. “I was like the CEO of a company. I went to the meetings; I talked to the people; I signed the contracts,” she says.

Living in the DAV, the 70-year-old feels like a kid again.

“I just have to be home in time for dinner, whatever time that is,” she says with a gleeful smile.

There are some very specific rules one must follow to stay or live in the DAV:

• No street lights are permitted.

• No white lights are allowed from dusk to dawn.

• No building can be over two stories tall, because it might obscure an observer’s view of the sky.

• No roosters are allowed, because they might disturb the sleep of astronomers who have been up all night observing.

The closest town is Sharon, Georgia, population 120. The DAV made a deal with the mayor of Sharon to switch out all the town’s 27 street lights to lights that point downward. DAV residents paid $50 a light. It was a way to further prevent light pollution from ruining the village’s stargazing.

As the sun goes down, darkness creeps over the village. The residents bring out their telescopes and roll back the roofs of their observatories. The only illumination comes from red lights scattered along the dirt road connecting the two dozen homes. Red light, unlike white light, does not affect the human eye’s ability to see in darkness.

On a clear night, a swath of what looks like a foggy cloud extends across the sky from the southeast to the southwest. It is the Milky Way.

“That’s the galaxy that we live in, and it arcs across the top of the sky,” resident and amateur astronomer Dan Llewellyn says. “Most people are unaware that we’re actually in that.”

There are three other astronomy villages across the United States: one in New Mexico, one in Florida and one in Arizona, says Hetlage, the DAV co-founder. Amateur astronomers started many of them. They “image” or take photos of planets, stars and comets and submit them to organizations like NASA, the British Astronomical Society or Mission Juno.

Ray Villard of the Space Telescope Science Institute at NASA describes the relationship between amateur astronomers and professional astronomers as a “wonderful symbiosis.”

In fact, in 2010 an amateur astronomer in Australia captured a comet crashing into Jupiter’s atmosphere. NASA then turned the Hubble Space Telescope toward Jupiter to take higher resolution images.

“You don’t have to have a Ph.D., you don’t have to have this long incredible education process, you can get a telescope and contribute to science immediately,” Llewellyn says. He bought a plot of land in the village nearly 10 years ago. He works part time as a commercial real estate agent in Atlanta, but any chance he gets, he heads out to the DAV to do astroimaging in his driveway with a $5,000 telescope called the Celestron C14.

Llewellyn says he loves his hobby, but he is also very aware that the excitement around space has waned in the past couple decades. He blames that on one thing: light pollution.

“If kids could put a telescope up in a metropolitan area, they would be more interested in it, but the light domes have completely destroyed the night sky,” Llewellyn says.

Still, he encourages people to take advantage of what they can see from cities, like the moon and the other planets in our solar system, because Llewellyn believes that “once you are hooked, you’re always hooked.”