Tim Russ is perhaps best known for his role as Lieutenant Commander Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager. However, his affinity for space goes far beyond science fiction. An actor and director by day, by night he is an amateur astronomer who has been watching the sky for decades. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Tim about his astronomical experiences.
What inspired your interest in astronomy?
It came out of the blue as far as my actual participating in it. But I’ve always been interested in space science, all the way through college and post-college. Once I moved to Los Angeles in my mid-to-late twenties, I started to think about getting hands-on into the hobby.
Did your upbringing influence your interest in astronomy at all?
Not really. My parents were not necessarily into science. The only time I was really exposed to it was either via a documentary here or there, or in school. So, most of this came after I started my career. I didn’t have a mentor or anyone who inspired me – I didn’t have any of that at all. I just woke up one day and thought, “I’m going to go do this.”
You’ve obviously been observing for some time. How have your observing habits changed over the years?
When I first started, I used a very low-powered, wide-field telescope. I could see a lot of the sky but not a great deal of detail. So, the evolution of my hobby has had to do with the telescopes I’ve purchased over the years and their sizes.
Do you have a favorite?
I have a 10-inch Dobsonian that I like for dark skies. Right behind that is an 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain. The newest is Unistellar’s eVscope. It’s got an eyepiece built-in and the images it takes go to my cell phone. Given how easily the images come in, I think it will be an introduction to astronomy for a lot of people.
Is this what you used to help track asteroid 617 Patroclus for Lucy, the NASA mission that just launched for the Trojan asteroids that orbit near Jupiter?
Yes, it was, and I had never done that before. During the Patroclus occultation, the asteroid’s path created a shadow on Earth as it crossed in front of a star. Occultations happen several times a year with different asteroids, but the path could be anywhere in the world. This just happened to be right over Los Angeles, so Unistellar contacted me and asked if I could take a look. I just took the telescope across the street to a park. Start – four minutes later – stop, pack it up, go home. I downloaded the data, and they sent me back a movie of the whole thing!
Did they tell you what they were hoping to get out of that data?
There were several of us imaging all across the country. They wanted to take the collective data from all of us to try to get an idea of the shape and size of the asteroid. They’re going to fly by these asteroids, not orbit them, so they want to get as much information as they can before they actually get there.
What was that like for you, knowing that you were helping with a NASA mission?
It was exciting. I’ve always appreciated what NASA is doing. It’s exciting to be actually contributing to something they’re going to use scientifically. I’m just an amateur astronomer, as far away from NASA as I could be, and to be able to participate – that’s very cool.
You’re very good at explaining things in easy-to-understand terms. Have you been involved in any public outreach in your community?
Oh, tons. I belong to the Los Angeles Astronomical Society. Up until COVID, we would hold public star parties up at Griffith Observatory. We would all bring our telescopes out to the front lawn, and the general public would line up to observe. And I’d get a chance to explain what people are seeing and basic fundamental stuff about the universe.
I’ve been doing that for about three or four years. Hundreds of people come up there on star party nights, and we’re mostly looking at the Moon and the planets. The events happen once a month when they’re in operation, and I try to get up there every time.
From what you have said, your interest in astronomy has far surpassed your career. But did your role as Tuvok on Star Trek influence your desire to observe?
No, not at all. I was well entrenched in astronomy by the time I ended up working that role. The only thing it did was allow me to buy more equipment! The role was entirely coincidental from start to finish. I could have just as easily ended up on the series Baywatch. It just happened to be that show and coincidentally I was already doing astronomy before and after. It was just work.
Last question, a silly one to close us out. If you could go to space or another planet, would you?
I would seriously consider going to space. But another planet — that would depend on what planet it was. Because that’s a long time in a small box! I’m not sure how much fun that would be. You’d have to be prepared for that, to roll off this planet and set off across space where if anything goes south, you’re toast. That’s a scary proposition. Into space in general, maybe to orbit Earth – that would be cool.
You’re cool, Tim – thank you!