Starry, Starry Night

 Shorter days of autumn provide more time for stargazing at observatories or with the naked eye.By Laurie D. Morrissey

If you like stargazing, you’re in the right place. The Upper Valley has little light pollution, making it one of the best places to observe the night sky. On a clear night, you usually have a good view of the heavens simply by looking up.

If you want to get a better look at the stars and planets — and learn more about the solar system we live in — head to an astronomical observatory or planetarium. With the benefit of powerful telescopes and your own guide through the cosmos, you can expect to see the moons of Jupiter, Saturn’s rings, star clusters and distant galaxies.

New Hampshire and Vermont have a wealth of resources for amateur astronomers. In addition to two public planetariums (Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, Vt., and McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, N.H.), there are several observatories and numerous astronomy clubs that welcome members and hold events such as public stargazing nights.

Local Luminary

Vermont has a special claim to astronomical fame: the Stellafane Observatory in Springfield. It is the home of the Springfield Telescope Makers, founded by polar explorer and astronomer Russell Porter in 1921. The clubhouse and observatory on Breezy Hill Road are designated as a National Historic Landmark and hundreds of amateur telescope makers and astronomers attend Stellafane’s annual convention every August.

Every September, Stellafane sets up solar telescopes on the grounds of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H., to co-host the park’s annual star party. In October, Stellafane hosts a Star Party on its home turf, drawing astronomers of all levels and backgrounds, including curious parents and kids. Amateur astronomers share their telescopes and their knowledge and visitors can climb a ladder to enter the reflecting telescope mounted on a rotating pedestal.

“It’s very cool,” says 12-year-old Felix Davis of Temple, N.H., who attends the party every year with his father and brothers. Austin Davis, 15, says, “It’s nice to learn about the different telescopes people make, and see the stars through them.” Nine-year-old Paul Davis says, “You think you’re looking at one star twinkling, but when you look through the telescope you see there are really thousands of them.”

To Paul Davis, their dad, the view through the powerful telescopes is “just jaw dropping” and he likes the star party camaraderie, “There are people there with every level of experience from utter ignorance to top innovators and everyone in between. Anyone will talk to you on whatever level you need.”

Satisfy Their Stellar Curiosity

Some of the most high-tech astronomical equipment in the area is at the Northern Skies Observatory in Peacham, Vt., where a 17-inch PlaneWave reflecting telescope is housed in an automated, rotating dome. The observatory offers daytime tours, star parties and other events.

At the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, presentations for visitors age 6 and older are offered daily in the Lyman Spitzer Jr. Planetarium. Guests may also get a firsthand look at a 17-pound meteorite that fell to Earth about 5,000 years ago.

New Hampshire’s McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center offers planetarium shows and children’s programs for kids as young as five. During the day, you can observe sunspots and other solar activity.

Many schools and colleges also have observatories, including Pomfret School, Middlebury College, Bennington College and Dartmouth College. Middlebury and Dartmouth have free public viewing nights and welcome families with children. The schedule is subject to change depending on the academic calendar, season and weather, so check their websites before planning a visit.

Reading books together is a great way to prepare kids and parents for a visit to an observatory. Classics include two by Curious George author H.A. Rey: The Stars and Find the Constellations. Although written in the 1950s, The Stars is updated to include the latest information, such as Pluto’s dwarf planet status. Another good choice is Michael Driscoll’s A Child’s Introduction to the Night Sky: The Story of the Stars, Planets, and Constellations — and How You Can Find Them in the Sky.

Young astronomers and future astronauts can attend astronomy camp led by Brad Vietje of the Northern Skies Observatory each summer. Kids build and launch their own telescopes — and maybe, who knows — take the first steps to a lifelong interest or career.

If you cannot visit an observatory, one event to put on your calendar for low-tech, naked-eye sky watching is the Orionid meteor shower. Clear skies permitting, you may see up to 25 meteors per hour during the nights between Oct. 16 and 30. Maximum density of meteors will be on Oct. 21. Whether you are interested in the science of astronomy or simply the beauty of the night sky, it’s a great celestial (and free) show.

Laurie D. Morrissey’s starry skies are in Hopkinton, N.H., where she writes nonfiction articles and poetry.

Astronomy Clubs
Observatories and Planetariums

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