The Adirondacks’ first public observatory is set to formally open in July in a clearing above Little Wolf Pond. Ten years in the making, the Adirondack Public Observatory is the work of a group of committed astronomers who raised $200,000 in community donations and persuaded village leaders to preserve Tupper Lake’s dark skies by toning down the lights.
On a recent summer evening, the observatory’s cofounder, Marc Staves, rolled back the observatory’s four-thousand-pound roof. A storm was on its way, but the clouds did little to dampen his enthusiasm. Closing the roof as the first raindrops started to fall, Staves introduced the observatory’s other attractions: three working telescopes bolted to the floor and a bank of computers, arranged 2001 Space Odyssey-like, in a control room next-door. Equipped with high-speed Internet, the observatory will eventually allow sky watchers to remotely aim computerized telescopes at stars, planets, comets, and other objects in the night sky and take pictures and astronomical measurements that could help identify, say, the next asteroid crashing to Earth.
“We needed something for our young people and our older people to aspire to—something other than television,” said Staves, whose day job is as a utility-line worker.
In 2004, as ground was breaking in Tupper on the Adirondacks’ first natural history museum, the Wild Center, Staves and fellow backyard astronomer Tim Moeller, a corrections officer, came up with the idea to build an astronomical observatory. They incorporated the Adirondack Public Observatory as a nonprofit and assembled a group of professors and lay astronomers to form an oversight board. For the next several years, they held talks and “star parties” to drum up support.
Interest came in unexpected ways. In 2006, the Boston Globe ran a feature about the observatory that caught the eye of two retired aerospace engineers, Wallie Everest Jr. and his sister, Anne Everest Wojtkowski. Their father, who spent his career as a manager, administrator, and inventor at General Electric’s Pittsfield plant, had built an award-winning telescope in 1925 that was later featured in Scientific American and a definitive text on amateur telescope making.
After Wally Everest’s death, the siblings donated the famous “Old Town Pump” telescope to a prep school that promised to restore it. But after the repairs failed to materialize, the siblings asked for it back, and for decades the instrument sat in Everest’s basement, awaiting a second act.
After learning about the Tupper Lake observatory, the siblings again donated the Old Town Pump on the condition that it be restored and made accessible to the public. And so under the guidance of Jan Wojcik, a professor at Clarkson University, several physics majors on the Potsdam campus cleaned the Old Town Pump’s gears, built a new stand, and repaired its cannon-size tube.
The telescope now dominates the APO’s viewing room, with its twelve-and-a-half-inch mirror that Wally Everest meticulously ground by hand. “We would always have people in the backyard looking through this thing,”recalls his daughter, Anne, who still lives in Pittsfield. “He was a great explainer of what was going on in the sky and would have wanted the telescope in a place where it could be used and enjoyed.”
In another lucky break, amateur telescope maker Al Nagler showed up at the group’s first star party on Little Wolf Pond. Staves and the other stargazers gaped as Nagler pulled a series of high-end telescopes from his trunk. Nagler had heard about the party from his sister, Trudy Deutsch, who lived in town. After his sister’s death, Nagler donated a wide-field refractor telescope in her memory.
The observatory’s largest aperture telescope, a sixteen-inch Newtonian reflector, may be tiny compared to the Keck telescopes on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano or the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope whose mission is to peer 13 billion light-years away into the origins of the universe. But the instruments are more than capable of doing real science, said Staves. He and other astronomy enthusiasts plan to measure the intensity of various stars (photometry) and track their position, along with planets, asteroids, comets, and other near-Earth objects (astrometry).
The odds of an amateur making a monumental contribution to the field are slim, Staves admits, but not impossible. No one saw the ten-thousand-ton space rock coming that crashed over western Siberia in February, he points out. The asteroid injured more than 1,500 people and caused millions of dollars of damage. What if someone had spotted it sooner?
Canadian astronomer David Levy, an English lit major who went on to become one of the most accomplished comet hunters on the planet, has proved that amateurs can make an impact. Levy has discovered or co-discovered twenty-two comets, including the one that crashed into Jupiter in 1994. At his annual astronomy retreat in Lewis in the eastern Adirondacks, Levy learned about the APO and in 2012, donated a twelve-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on behalf of his nonprofit organization, the Sharing the Sky Foundation. Levy has twice visited Tupper Lake to give talks, including at the Wild Center this past August.
Separated from Saranac Lake and Lake Placid by miles of state-protected forest, Tupper Lake’s remote location makes it ideal for contemplating the night sky without pesky street, house, and highway lights to interrupt the blackness. But it also poses a challenge in selling the observatory to a wider audience.
“The first thing people ask is, ‘Where is Tupper Lake?’” said Carol Levy, who runs a booth each spring to advertise the observatory at the Northeast Astronomy Forum’s meeting in Rockland County in the lower Hudson Valley.
She keeps a nighttime satellite image of upstate New York handy and points to the dark oval that makes up the Adirondack Park. “They see the dark area and want to know how they can come here, where to stay, and so on,” she said. “Those dark skies make us unique. You can have large telescopes and professional astronomers, but without the dark skies you won’t see what we can see from Tupper Lake.”
Tupper Lake has also shown unusual foresight in protecting its dark skies, a resource that is growing increasingly scarce as more of the world’s population moves into cities with their twenty-four-hour lifestyle. The village board listened to Staves and agreed to replace worn-out fixtures with downward-facing lights and to remove lights that were unneeded. By 2009, the changes paid off with $5,000 in annual energy savings. The returns were even higher for stargazers.
“We’ve lowered our light dome by about 40 percent,” said Staves. “We don’t have that miniature sunset every two hundred feet.”
Just up the road, the Wild Center has installed similar lights. An educational display in the parking lots explains the benefits to museum-goers. Ironically, the APO had considered siting the observatory at the Wild Center, but the lights at nearby Sunmount, the TB hospital turned housing for people with developmental disabilities, was one factor that led the board to settle on its current location.
The observatory has been informally open for the last year. Gordie Duval, a physics teacher at Tupper Lake High School, used to set up telescopes in his backyard for class, but the new facility has allowed him to take his lessons to the next level. And now if clouds appear suddenly, he can run simulations on the observatory’s computers rather than send his students home.
For teenagers and adults alike, there is no substitute for seeing the orange rings of Saturn or the twinkling outline of the Milky Way firsthand, he said. “Objects in the night sky are no longer objects in a book; they’re real, which makes a difference in how you perceive them,” he said.
Board member Aileen O’Donoghue, a physics and astronomy professor at St. Lawrence University, plans to start bringing her students here next fall. St. Lawrence has a portable eleven-inch telescope, she said, but it’s heavy, and light pollution in the area makes for less-than spectacular viewing. Conveniently, the town campground on Little Wolf Pond is a few steps away from the APO.
The night sky is our original calendar and clock, she said, launching into lecture mode. For humans throughout the ages, the wilderness above has been a source of delight, amazement, and fear, she said. The observatory allows visitors to touch all those emotions at once.
“One of my favorite things to do is show people Saturn,” she said. “They’ve seen magnificent photos of Saturn, but when they look through a telescope and see it with their own eyes they say, ‘O my God, it’s real!’ To look at a galaxy with your own eyes, it connects you with the universe, deeply.”
Note: The Adirondack Public Observatory hopes to hold a grand opening this summer, but no date has been set. Look for an announcement on apobservatory.org.
Illustrations: Above, Marc Staves inspects a telescope outside the Adirondack Public Observatory (Pat Hendrick) and middle, Marc Staves, left, and Tim Moeller. Map by Nancy Bernstein.
This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.