A recent weekend provided stellar nights for gazing. Not perfect as high cirrus clouds shaded a few assets, but four great ones were clear: Jupiter and its four moons, Mercury, the Moon in its pocketed glory, and space lab whizzing by.
The Adirondacks provide one of the best destinations for viewing the stars in the East. The humidity is relatively low, and there is little light pollution, the bane of stargazers living in the eastern half of the United States.
Look at an image of the United States at night and the Adirondacks stands out as a black hole. Northern Maine makes the grade, but not many other places. The challenge and opportunity for the region is to protect that dark night sky where one can lie down, look up, and see the Milky Way sparkle across the heavens.
Another challenge for star gazing in the high peaks is finding a broad vista such as Norton Cemetery provides, often cloudy or unpredictable weather and the best viewing nights tend to be cold, real cold, thus dressing warm is a requirement. Still, when nights like we had on this recent weekend are available, the views can be spectacular.
Star gazing in Keene emerged with the convergence of two passionate people, Kevin O’Neal and David Craig, and their equally passionate sons. You might think, why bother? I can see a great photo the moon online; a difference is in the three-dimensionality of the planets. The moon pops. Its rugged surface is dramatic.
“My telescope is a Schmidt-Newtonian, which means it’s a combination of reflecting and refracting,” said Kevin O’Neil. “The main mirror is a reflector, and the secondary is a refractor that pulls the image into the eyepiece. It’s a small scope, an 8 inch Meade LXD75. It’s an older scope, but it does the job.”
Craig and his wife Julie got into astronomy when their son Peter was young. They purchased a 4.5-inch telescope from a store in Saranac. “It wasn’t the greatest scope in the world, but it wasn’t bad either,” he said. “We had fun with that, but it’s a little frustrating when you don’t have tracking as then you can’t look at an object for very long. As Peter got more and more into science in high school and started thinking of a career in astrophysics, we pulled the scope out again. Last summer we had a string of really good nights for viewing and I got interesting in seeing some of the more subtle objects like the Great Ring Nebula and Andromeda.”
O’Neil got into stargazing as a kid living in northern California near the national forest. He said it was a rural area with not a lot of neighbors, but with clear night skies. He’d climb cliffs near his home and look up with a pair of binoculars. The inspiration was the 1973 Comet Kohoutek, hyped at the time as “the comet of the century.” While its passing was not as spectacular as many scientists predicted, it did leave O’Neil hooked on stargazing.
“Stargazing moves me out into the universe,” said O’Neil. “It allows me to capture things that I would never be able to see here on earth. And if you think how far away Jupiter is, think of the time those light photons took to get here. If you are looking at deep sky objects, like the Andromeda Galaxy, its taken two and a half million years for those photons to get here. You’re looking back in time!”
For the general public, a great inspiration for stargazing came with the posting of photos taken by the Hubble Telescope launched in 1990. Images from deep space were unlike any heretofore seen or imagined. Growing up, our neighbors doctors Hub and Herbert M. Bergamini had a telescope and allowed my brother Gerret and me to gaze out over Mirror Lake, and at night, the moon above. That experience so inspired us my brother got a Gilbert 4-inch telescope that we never tired of using.
“I’ve been star-gazing off and on for ten years, but not really seriously until last year,” said David Craig. “My son Peter was the inspiration. It’s a nice thing to do with your son. I like photography. You can see things with a camera that you can’t see with your eyes, such as colors as your eyes just aren’t that sensitive to colors. If you do a long exposure, a minute or more, you can see colors in the Orion Nebula that are just beautiful.”
A year ago Craig started the stargazing parties at Norton Cemetery. His scope is a computerized Celestron CPC 800, with an 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain primary mirror. It bounces the light from a secondary mirror through a hole in the primary mirror out the back to the eyepiece resulting in a long focal length in a relatively short tube.
“We’ve got Mercury over here,” he said. “Mercury is tricky to see because it’s so close to the sun. It’s usually in the glare of the sun, often you can’t see it at all, but when you can, it’s usually in the early morning or at dusk. It moves quickly around the sun, so there are just a short number of days when it’s good. On April 18th, it [was] at its furthest elongation, 20 degrees, and that’s good for us.”
“Look, here comes the space station,” said Judy Caner. “Looking into space is awesome! You realize just what a little speck we are in the whole universe. I love looking at the moons around Jupiter.” The bands on Jupiter were clearly visible as was the red spot that Friday night.
“I’m a geeky kid,” said Cedar Jones, out watching with Kevin’s son Edward. “I love watching Sci-Fi and things like that, and I’m interested in science. I question space. I want to explore it through space travel and a telescope. I love seeing the moon through a scope and close-ups of Jupiter.”
“I enjoy seeing the Venus transit when the planet crosses in front of the sun,” said Edward O‘Neill. “That only happens once every century, and I was pretty fortunate to witness that.” (June 5th, 2012).
“Star gazing is a way for me to get off the planet,” said Kevin. “It’s a way for me to look back in time. It’s a way for me to feel I am part of something much larger than just our planet. Also Everett and I get to be outside together at night and share the sky as father and son. That’s really cool!”
This Saturday night was Hearth Moon Rising’s first experience looking through a scope at the planets. “It was exciting seeing the space station go by,” she said. “I loved seeing Jupiter’s moons. I imagined what it would be like standing on that planet with all those moons around you.”
The big threat to stargazing is light pollution. Many homes and businesses have bright safety lights on all night, lights that are not directed just at the ground. Even here in the Adirondacks viewing the stars is under threat, one that can be greatly mitigated by direction lights, use of motion-detected lights instead of those that burn all night, and excessive numbers of parking lot and highway nights, especially those that are non directional.
A great resource for star-gazers is the Adirondack Public Observatory on Big Wolf Road in Tupper Lake. Keep in mind, just lying back on the ground, or better yet on light pool lounger covered with a blanket, and using a pair of binoculars can heighten the experience of gazing skyward.
On Monday morning, May 9, weather permitting, the Keene stargazers will set up at the Keene Central School so the students can watch planet Mercury’s transit in front of the sun. The public also invited. The rain date will be November 11, 2019. Pray for clear skies.
Notices of the Norton Cemetery gatherings are usually last minute posts on the Nextdoor Keene calendar. The Adirondack Almanack’s Outdoor Conditions Report also provides general information about the Adirondack night sky every Thursday afternoon.
Photos, from above: The Adirondack night sky over Cranberry Lake by Jessica Tabora; the view from space showing the dark skies over the Adirondack Park (NASA-NOAA); Kevin O’Neil with his 8 inch Meade LXD75 telescope; David Craig with his Celestron CPC 800; Cedar and Edward Jones.