Summer Nights: New Hampshire astronomers educate, wow crowds at public sky watches
New Hampshire Astronomical Society member Paul Winalski (center) of Merrimack adjusts his telescope as skywatchers look for stars in the sky in the Weare Middle School parking lot in Weare on Monday evening, July 29, 2013.
(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
New Hampshire Astronomical Society member Gardner Gerry of Litchfield looks to the sky after setting up his telescope in the Weare Middle School parking lot in Weare on Monday evening, July 29, 2013.
(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
It didn’t look promising.
Grey, fluffy clouds hung heavy in the sky over Weare at sunset last Monday, threatening rain, and worse, threatening to linger for hours.
The New Hampshire Astronomical Society had already postponed that night’s public sky watch from July 12, due to rain. The society had also postponed – and then cancelled – a sky watch in Sanbornville, cancelled one in Lincoln, and postponed another in Goffstown.
It has not been a good summer for sky watching, unless you like to watch clouds.
But by dark, the clouds over Weare had parted like the Red Sea, hovering over the horizon in several directions, but leaving a clear, stunning view of the cosmos overhead.
“I wanna see a star explode,” said 7-year-old Molly Coyle of Weare, as she swatted away mosquitoes and waited in line to climb up the step stool and look through Gardner Gerry’s telescope.
Gerry, the co-chairman of the society’s public observer committee, didn’t have his telescope aimed at any exploding stars. Instead, it was focused on Saturn, in all its ringed glory, with its largest moon, Titan, by its side.
As Molly’s mother, Hill Coyle, looked through the scope and gasped at the view, Gerry nodded.
“That’s why we do this. That’s the satisfaction. There’s a pure enjoyment we get from sharing with a young person, when they see something like that for the first time. What could be better?” he asked.
It was a public sky watch in 2003 that drew Gerry into the fold. He had always been interested in the sky but had no equipment of his own. When he saw Jupiter up close, he was hooked.
Last week, before it was dark enough to see the stars, Steve Rand led a brief seminar on astronomy, constellations and the size of the known universe. Years ago, these speeches were accompanied by
slides in a carousel; now, the show’s on an iPad.
Rand was once an educator at the Museum of Science in Boston; he knows how to put on a show that educates and engages in equal measures. The kids and their parents and grandparents “oohed” and “aahed” at the photos of stars and galaxies far, far away taken by the Hubble telescope. And they guffawed in disbelief over the scaled demonstration of the distance of the moon from the earth – practically across the room, when the moon is the size of a tennis ball.
The Astronomical Society holds public sky watches year-round, and members said the viewing is best in the fall or winter, when there’s less humidity and a lower chance of rain. Earlier sunsets in those seasons also make it more family friendly, as long as everyone bundles up against the cold.
Despite the clouds, more than 50 people attended the sky watch in Weare, one of the biggest crowds of the summer. In the fall, the sky watch in Merrimack will draw nearly 400 kids and their parents, so the lines are long even with 20 telescopes set up.
The sky watches are popular, but the group won Astronomy magazine’s national 2012 Out-of-This-World Award for outstanding public programming for a different program, one inspired by New Hampshire’s poet of snow and stars, Robert Frost.
In “The Star-Splitter,” Frost writes of a man who was frustrated with farming, with moving rocks to plow his fields and of plowing around the ones he can’t move. He burns down his house and uses the insurance money to buy a telescope.
“The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see; / The strongest thing that’s given us to see with’s / A telescope. Someone in every town / Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one. / In Littleton it may as well be me,” ’ Frost says in the poem.
A member suggested the library as the keeper of the town telescope, and in 2009, the society donated a telescope and instructions to Tamworth’s public library.
The society used the $2,500 in prize money from Astronomy to purchase and donate 10 more; there are now 79 telescopes in New Hampshire public libraries, and one in Massachusetts, donated by a member to the library in his wife’s hometown. Astronomical societies in other states and countries have launched the project in their districts, too.
“We’re geeks, that’s why we do this,” Rand said. “Really, it’s the emotional part. When someone looks at Saturn and says ‘Wow it really does have rings.’ It’s intoxicating for them and rewarding for us.
“We do it to promote more appreciation and understanding of astronomy. As we’re changing from government to more private enterprise support for space exploration, we need more people who get excited about this, because there’ll be more people who will support NASA.
“I think our destiny is to keep exploring, keep learning more all the time,” he said.
“It’s the eternal quest to understand the universe. It starts with seeing, and then asking questions.”
The society holds public sky watches the first Friday of every month at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord and other events as time, weather and public interest permit. For a full list of events, visit NHAstro.com and click on “Calendar.” To see if a library near you has a lending telescope, click “Library Telescope Project.”
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)