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Amateur astronomer in Port Wing scans skies hoping to spot supernova

PORT WING, Wis. -- When the sky here goes dark, William Wiethoff's world lights up. As the crickets begin to drone in the fern-lined paths around his rural home, Wiethoff begins lugging heavy, expensive sky-observing equipment out onto his porch....

PORT WING, Wis. -- When the sky here goes dark, William Wiethoff's world lights up.

As the crickets begin to drone in the fern-lined paths around his rural home, Wiethoff begins lugging heavy, expensive sky-observing equipment out onto his porch.

Somewhere in the darkness of space, silent galaxies beckon.

If the sky is cloudless, Wiethoff will stay out all night, heedless of the clock's march toward work at the Siskiwit Bay Marina in Cornucopia the next day. He'll gaze through his telescope and take pictures of deep-space objects such as nebulas and star clusters, capturing images to compare to previous ones in hopes of spotting a new cosmic occurrence.

"Once I get started, I can't stop until the sun pushes the night away," he said. "I'll be out there all night."

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"Any time it's clear and I talk to him the next day, he'll have been out until three or four in the morning," said Jim Schaff of Hermantown, who's in the Arrowhead Astronomical Society with Wiethoff. "He'll wait for a cloudy day to get some sleep."

By all accounts, amateur astronomy isn't an easy pastime to pursue.

Viewing and photographing sessions can deny Wiethoff sleep until noon the next day. In addition, high-quality telescopes can cost thousands of dollars and astrophotography is laborious, easily undone by the slightest procedural flaw.

But Wiethoff, 55, has his reasons, which were apparent on a recent evening as he watched Jupiter, a custard-colored orb banded with rust, grow more defined as night fell.

"To my eye, it's so incredibly beautiful when you look at an object in an eyepiece and try to comprehend it," Wiethoff said. "I don't want to get real sappy, but it's hard to comprehend these things, but it's not hard to comprehend their beauty."

The ultimate prize for Wiethoff would be to discover a supernova -- a stellar explosion -- before anyone else does so he could name it.

"That would be pretty exciting," he said. "For an amateur to find one would be pretty amazing."

To pursue that goal, he tries to survey 20 galaxies a night.

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It took him a full year to learn to take photographs of the objects he sees through his telescope. It's a tedious process; to get a color image requires 40 one-minute exposures for each of four colored lenses, then computer assistance to mesh them all together. In the winter, Wiethoff even turns off his furnace so thermals don't alter the image-taking process.

He said the pains are worth taking.

"I always thought there's the Hubble [telescope] out there so if I want to look at [an image], I can just look at a professional one," Wiethoff said. "I didn't realize the joy in having your own image."

Wiethoff first took a shine to astronomy when he got a telescope for a Christmas gift at age 10.

"When I got my first look at the moon, I was totally blown away," Wiethoff said. "I haven't gone back since."

His commitment to astronomy has wavered over the years, but when the former ramp worker for Northwest Airlines retired and moved from the Twin Cities 12 years ago, he looked for a place where he could observe the skies without big-city light pollution.

He settled on Port Wing after finding an 80-acre parcel of woods he could purchase. He lives in a log home powered by a 6-by-12-foot solar panel.

In Port Wing, Wiethoff's interest in astronomy has had a chance to steep.

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"He does talk about [astronomy] at the drop of a hat," said Dave Tillmans, who owns Siskiwit Bay Marina where Wiethoff works. "He'll always talk stars and constellations."

Wiethoff now tries to nourish amateur astronomy in others.

"I love showing these people things they've never seen before," he said.

He and his friends sometimes set up telescopes in Canal Park to give passers-by a glimpse into space.

"I've had big tattooed Harley guys just get blown away," Wiethoff said.

Will Tillmans, Dave's son, who works with Wiethoff at Siskiwit Bay Marina, has also benefited from Wiethoff's outreach.

"We sometimes go over to his house and look at stars," Will Tillmans said. "It's pretty fun."

On Thursday, Wiethoff had both telescopes pointed skyward, one roving between constellations and star clusters.

His next big project is to build a small, retractable-roof observatory so he doesn't have to drag his equipment into position each night.

That might sound a little extreme -- unless you feel the way about astronomy that Wiethoff does.

"The more you learn, the more you look out there, the more you see," Wiethoff said. "I don't think of it like [a hobby]. It's a passion. I think that's what our jobs are in life: to find our passion as take them as far as we can."

In Wiethoff's case, "as far as we can" means light-years into space, where nebulas drift and stars die in noiseless explosions.

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