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Meteor man

click to enlarge SUNNIE SACKS

When you've seen one star, even through the lens of a powerful telescope, you've pretty much seen 'em all.

But when it comes to constellations, well that's something else again. Orion is astronomer Chris Peterson's favorite. "It looks like what it's supposed to look like," he says. As for planets, Peterson is enamored with Saturn, with Jupiter a close second. "It's a pleasure to show Saturn to people," he says. "Everyone just loves it."

Mars is also getting a lot of press this month, as it is closer to Earth than it's been for 60,000 years. Though the planet is looking quite impressive, the hype has been a bit overblown. "In reality, it gets this big, and looks this close, about every 15 years," Peterson says.

Peterson, who is actually a physicist by profession, works and lives outside the tiny town of Guffey in the mountains southwest of Colorado Springs. He and his wife left Southern California five years ago, looking for better living and darker skies. His observatory, at 9,000 feet, is an 8-by-10-foot structure with a roof that rolls right off, leaving nothing between his medium-sized telescope and the vast universe. Often, Peterson stays up all night, collecting data for universities and collecting images of galaxies, clusters, comets and nebulae. He is also involved in a project with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to look for meteors that hit the Earth, with the hopes of recovering them right after they've fallen. His Web site, at www.cloudbait.com, is a clearinghouse of sorts for fireballs and space matter.

If Peterson were ever to discover a star, he wouldn't get to name it. That's because, despite popular belief, only about 100 stars actually have names, like Betelgeuse. As for those companies that offer to sell you naming rights to a star, "That's just a scam," Peterson says.

-- by Cara DeGette

photo by Sunnie Sacks

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