Michael A. Stecker


Tom Polakis
Tempe, Arizona
Tom, a prolific author on the night sky is seen here on a recent astro-trip to
Namibia Africa
(see additional photo below)

Contact information
Locator Map
Level of accuracy: city of Tempe, Arizona


My interest in astronomy dates back to my childhood in West Michigan, with two major contributors.  I grew up during the height of the Space Age, with the moon landing occurring just before my eighth birthday.  Secondly, my mother brought the kids out to the backyard every August to watch "The Tears of St. Lawrence," known more popularly these days as the Perseid meteor shower.

It wasn't until I was 16 years old that I began to buy magazines and books, and develop an unhealthy lust for a big telescope.  My first big telescope turned out to be a 4-inch Selsi reflector.  It possessed usable optics on an unusable mounting: a large wing nut clamped on an omnidirectional ball riding on a flimsy tripod.  I overcame the frustration and saved funds to buy a Criterion RV-6.  With that fine telescope I observed half of the Messier catalogue from an observing site on the property of the euphemistically named Muskegon County Wastewater Management System, where the local club's observatory is stationed today.

Late in my high school years I bought a very good Celestron 8, with which I honed my finding and observing skills, observing the rest of the Messier catalogue and then some.  I used this telescope with less frequency during my college years, as I pursued my mechanical engineering degree.  My first job out of college brought me to Hartford, Connecticut, where I got a chance to meet some great people and visit historical sites.  But Arizona was calling, and after a year and a half, I made the break, remaining employed in the aircraft engine industry, where I work today for Honeywell.

Very soon after arriving in Arizona, I joined the Saguaro Astronomy Club.  Veteran Arizona observers mentored me through the ins and outs of observing and photography.  I purchased a 13-inch Dobsonian, and immediately made it a project to view everything north of -50 degrees declination in Burnham's Celestial Handbook -- a project I completed in 1990.

During those first five years in Arizona I made two trips to Queensland, Australia to view the Southern sky.  I did not know at the time that this would become a passion.  Since then I have made two more observing expeditions to Australia, and one each to Chile and Namibia.  While I enjoyed seeing a total solar eclipse from Aruba in 1998, I still prefer a couple weeks under the Magellanic Clouds.

Thanks for my friend Brian Skiff, I began writing observing articles for "Deep Sky" magazine in 1990.  I have since written observing and feature pieces for Sky & Telescope and Astronomy.  The most notable and enjoyable was a series called "Celestial Portraits", which Astronomy ran for six years.  In 46 articles I discussed the constellations, north and south, until we ran out of sky.

In addition to my now mostly idle 13-inch telescope, I have a 20-inch that I purchased from the great Phoenix scope builder Pierre Schwaar.  The telescope remains in use today, riding on an Osypowski equatorial platform and with optics refigured by the master optician Mike Spooner.  Mike also did the optics for my 10-inch, which is currently my workhorse scope.  A small refractor cannot be beat for aesthetically pleasing stars, so I round out the collection with a Pronto, which is occasionally fitted with a Coronado 60mm H-alpha filter.

When I'm not scoping, I play sports, even at my advancing age.  I play one or two nights a week in a roller hockey league.  Ultimate frisbee alternates with hockey as my favorite sport, and I just can't give either of them up.  Arizona is the greatest state in the U.S. in my unbiased view, and I love to discover it by vehicle and foot.  I am very interested in physical sciences, particularly meteorology, which can be practiced when you're not practicing astronomy!

That brings us almost up to date.  After knowing Jennifer Keller from the Saguaro Astronomy Club for many years, we got together for a casual trip to southern Arizona in February of 2003.  It was pretty obvious on that day that we would be married, and that came to be on December 29 of the following year.  As somebody who thinks of himself as a weird scientist guy, I feel privileged to have such a compatible relationship.  Jennifer and I keep our weekends far too busy with local friends and trips, astronomical and otherwise.  During the summer of 2004, I spent six weeks being the astronomical tour guide at an eco-tourism lodge in Namibia.  Jennifer joined me for the last two weeks, confirming again that I am living the good life.

I can't imagine the many ways that my life would have been different without astronomy, and prefer not to think about it.  The sights you see, the people who become your friends, and the perspective you gain as an amateur astronomer are unequalled.

Areas of interest
Visual observing of any kind.  I love the deep sky, but the shallow sky is fascinating as well.  I did astro-imaging from the backyard with my 13-inch for a few years, but it became too similar to my day job.  I vastly prefer camera-and-tripod scenic night photography; there's plenty of that on my Web site.

Astronomy Publications
Mostly Astronomy and some Sky & Telescope from about
1994 onwards.  "Celestial Portraits" ran in Astronomy from 1998 through 2004.

Observing sites
The backyard is still great for the bright stuff, but for deep-sky, most people here in Phoenix stay in the low deserts to the south and west during the Winter and go north and east to the high country to cool off in Spring and early Summer.  The months of July through September are typically pretty well written off to our summer monsoon.  When it's good at 7000 feet a couple hours from Phoenix, it's as good as it gets on the planet!

Astronomical Equipment
Telescopes and mounts
20", 13", 10", 8" Newtonians, 70mm Pronto, 60mm SolarMax H-alpha filter, two equatorial tracking platforms

Canon 300D Digital Rebel camera and some EF lenses.

If somebody pays me to do this hobby, I will retire tomorrow.


Tom Polakis with his wife Jennifer


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