Ready and waiting
When the solar eclipse hits Oregon in August, and hordes of would-be observers are stuck in traffic jams across the state, former West Linn resident Scott Miller knows where he will observe the rare phenomenon: On his home computer via the telescope in his backyard.
"The upcoming eclipse is something that is rare for any area it hits," said Miller, an amateur astronomer. "A total eclipse might only occur or be visible in any area once every 100 years. Here in Tigard, the moon first hits the sun at 9:06 a.m. on Aug. 21, and the moon will almost totally block the sun at 10:18 a.m.
"(The eclipse) will be all over at 11:38 a.m. Although Portland and the metro area will not reach full totality, the sun will be 99.6 percent blocked here in Tigard."
People who want to see the "ring of fire" must be a little farther south, at least as far as Woodburn.
However, Miller cautions, "If it's cloudy, we won't see it. But, if it's visible, I plan to put solar film on a video camera and track the sun with my (telescope) while the camera is directly feeding a monitor for everyone to watch."
Miller's fascination with astronomy started quite by accident. While working for Siemens in Tualatin, he and his wife June bought a house in West Linn. "It had a big patio in front overlooking the Tualatin River and the valley," he said. "I thought it was a great spot for a telescope and started looking into them. As I researched them, I thought, why not go bigger?
"My original plan was to look at the landscape, not look at the stars. Then I realized that I could do more than look at the valley because the most interesting things are up in the air."
However, Miller soon realized that there is a lot of light pollution in the metro area, "which makes it hard to see unless you go to Eastern Oregon or other less-developed areas."
With Miller's telescope weighing 150 pounds, it's not portable to move to an area where the eclipse is 100 percent total, he said.
Miller's telescope is embedded in a concrete patio protected from the elements with a shed on wheels that he slides out of the way when he is using the telescope; and nearby in a small outbuilding is all his computer equipment for controlling the telescope.
"I can pull up a map of the sky and tell the telescope where to go, and it moves," he said. "It took years to set up and I'm always adding to it. When I get the bug, I stay up late. I was out here until 3 a.m. the last three nights.
"A telescope is a hole in the sky that you throw money at. People can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on systems. My set-up is quite modest, and people can even do it for hundreds of dollars."
Miller loves to talk about astronomy, noting, "When you think of the vastness of the universe, we are so small. I definitely think life is out there, but I don't know if there is intelligent life close to us."
He pointed out that the astronomical distances in space are the biggest hurdle to overcome. For example, NASA launched twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft in 1977 and they are now farther away from the sun and Earth than Pluto. In August 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, the region between stars filled with material ejected by the death of nearby stars millions of years ago, according to the Voyager website. And it will need another 10,000 years to reach the nearest star.
"If we can find a way to defy the laws of physics, then (inter-stellar travel) might be possible," Miller said. "We haven't figured a way to exceed the speed of light. If we went at half the speed of light to the closest star, it would take eight-and-a-half years, but to accelerate and decelerate, it would take 50 years. Right now the odds are against doing it. Even going to Mars is a long shot but technically possible."
He pointed out that the sun is a variable star, doesn't put out the same amount of light every day and is thought to be on an 11-year cycle. However, it also has much longer cycles that are just now being discovered.
Miller's current telescope is 10 inches wide, and he explained that it utilizes a folded-objects system. Mirrors inside reflect back and forth to make it the equivalent of two-and-a-half meters long (about seven-and-a-half feet), far longer than its actual length of 22 inches.
"I'm always modifying my setup, trying to find the cheapest way to get good quality images," Miller said.
The Millers' Tigard backyard has a wide-open view of the southern overhead sky, which was important to Miller when purchasing a home. However, there is the issue of ambient light.
"You don't want light posts around, and street lights are always a problem, but trees here block direct view of them," said Miller, revealing an astronomer's secret: Light sensors on street lights can be turned off temporarily with a laser.
The first object Miller saw through his telescope was M 27, also referred to as the Dumbbell Nebula, which is a planetary nebula in the constellation Vulpecula about 1,360 light years away. It was the first planetary nebula to be discovered by Charles Messier in 1764 (thus the M name).
Miller served in the Army from 1969 to 1972, where he received electronics training. After leaving the service, he went to work for Siemens for 39 years working in medical X-ray equipment before retiring at age 62.
"I worked in Denver for eight years, and then I was transferred to Oregon in 1981," Miller said. "We lived in Tualatin for 18 years, then West Linn. When I retired in 2012, we moved to Summerfield."
As for his astronomy hobby, he said, "Sometimes I think I'm crazy. But I've always been a technology nut and interested in computers, and astronomy uses both."