"Oh, wow" and "Ohmigod" are the two most common phrases Dean Koenig hears when he first shows people the stars in Tucson's night sky.
Koenig, a self-described "astro-nut," is the owner of Starizona in Tucson, a retail shop that offers a complete selection of astronomical products, as well as free online resources. Starizona also makes a line of novel equipment for astronomy, including its HyperStar imaging system.
Four nights a week, Starizona offers free night sky viewing for the public, welcoming all ages.
"We've had groups from the Boy Scouts and Brownies, families with small children, and people aged 8 to 80," Koenig said. "We do the stargazing year round, four nights a week, weather permitting."
Koenig pointed out that interest in astronomy is growing, especially this year because it's the 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope.
"It's called the International Year of Astronomy and there's a heightened awareness on the part of the public," he said. "Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences known to man and probably the one that encourages us the most because by its very nature it gets you looking up."
Koenig said the Starizona business has been steadily growing since he opened shop 15 years ago. He credits the many unusual occurrences in the sky as incubators of public interest.
"The Hubble space telescope has brought these gorgeous images into our living rooms, kids are growing up with technology and science, there was that whole controversy about whether or not Pluto is a planet, the Hale-Bopp comet interested people and so did the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet that impacted Jupiter," Koenig said. "There's a lot that happened in recent years that's kept astronomy alive for the average person."
Koenig is especially proud of his HyperStar lens, which takes a commonly sold telescope called a Schmidt-Cassegrain and converts it from a F 10 to a F 2 system.
"It makes it photographically 30 times faster so it can take a deep sky photo in less than a minute," Koenig pointed out. "That could be a photo of a nebula or another galaxy — anything that's beyond our solar system."
Koenig noted that the HyperStar imaging has become so popular that he gives workshops in how to use it, and draws people from as far away as England and Germany.
Koenig and his wife Donna work full time in the Starizona store, along with three other full-time staff members. They've been in Tucson for 18 years, moving from Sacramento, Calif., where Donna was a pre-school teacher and Dean ran a five-location retail and wholesale swimming pool services business.
Astronomy was Dean Koenig's calling, so the couple trademarked the Starizona name, then moved to the desert to start the business.
Astronomy doesn't have to be an expensive hobby, Koenig maintained.
"You don't have to buy a telescope at all," he says. "Just go out and use your own peepers and look up. Or you can get something as simple as a planetsphere, which displays the night sky on a card that allows you to rotate the day and time so you know what starts are up there at that time. It sells for less than $20 and you can learn constellations and star names quite easily."
Advanced technology has made astronomy very easy for the average person, Koenig added. Telescopes today can be so advanced they can get a Global Positioning Satellite signal and know where they are located and what time it is. Such a GPS telescope triangulates its position when you point it at three random stars. One can then push a "tour" button, and the telescope will take you on a tour of the night sky. Telescopes of that type of sophistication can run around $400.
Those interested in an advanced level where photography can be done with the system should figure on paying around $2,000 for a telescope.
"With a typical home scope like that, you can see Saturn's rings and their divisions, plus five of its moons," Koenig said. "That's like bringing Saturn to you and there's plenty of 'wow' in it."
Starizona, at 5757 N. Oracle Road, Suite 103, has its free night sky viewings Monday and Wednesday from sunset to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from sunset to 10 p.m.