Urban Starfest in Central Park draws hundreds of stargazers

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Urban Starfest, co-sponsored by the Amateur Astronomers Association and the Urban Park Rangers, took place last night in Central Park. Despite clouds and cold, more than 200 people learned about the city's night skyscape. // Sarah Scoles
Despite the unseasonable chill, the clouds, and the thousands of other worthy events going on in New York City, hundreds of people filed into Sheep's Meadow in Central Park last night for the Urban Starfest. They were greeted by Susan Andreoli, a member of the Manhattan-based Amateur Astronomers Association (AAA) board, who handed each start party-goer a bag of astro-swag and sent them down the hill toward a line of impressive telescopes and telescope operators.

The Urban Starfest takes place once a year as a joint venture between the AAA and the Urban Park Rangers to introduce Manhattanites, outer boroughers, and visitors to the astronomical sights visible even in a buzzing metropolis. Plus, attendees get to hang out inside Central Park at 10 p.m. and have their only worry be whether they're going to trip over a tripod.

It's hard to take pictures in the dark without a tripod, but here I am talking about why we are able to see comets, when to look for Comet ISON, and why we should care about these dirty snowballs. // Rachel Scoles
When the first guests arrived, volunteers handed them free raffle tickets (to which they responded, "Free? Really? No. Wait, really?"), which they could use to try to win themed prizes like a gently used telescope, a home planetarium projector, and a TeleVue eyepiece.

The visitors then wandered over to the troupe of telescopes. Although clouds blocked most of the sky and refused to blow away, skywatchers were able to see the dips and rise of the Moon's face and, because we were in the middle of Manhattan, sky-scraping architecture with the level of detail window-washers enjoy. Despite the clouds, all of the people who stopped by enjoyed the special up-close view of their city and the conversation with the AAA members. After all, seeing large telescopes and having the opportunity to talk about lenses, mirrors, mounts, and Messier objects is an experience on its own. After all, it's not every day that one finds celestial experts lurking in the Central Park's dark corners, ready to talk about the observing opportunities that are available without a dark-sky site.

Meade's Mike Dzurny and NYC-based Adorama's Michael Peoples were around to talk cameras, scopes, and supernovae.

Midway through the event, Al Nagler, founder of TeleVue Optics, spoke to the crowd and pointed out that in New York you can have the beauty both of the sky above and the city surrounding you, and telescopes allow you to see both through a different (pardon the pun) lens. I then talked about the coming Comet ISON (C/2012 S1), remarking that comets, in their sudden (from an astronomical perspective) arrival and sudden departure, remind us that everything in the sky is changing, evolving, exploding, flaring, rotating, revolving, or some combination of those, even though most objects look static and stable. No matter how dark or not-dark your sky, the universe is bigger and more dynamic than you can fully perceive from Earth on human timescales.

After the speeches, one lucky winner had to figure out how to transport his new (gently used) telescope through Manhattan — a good problem to have, as problems go. AAA astronomers showed him how to set it up, adjust its focus, change eyepieces, and, finally, find things in the sky. He, and everyone else there, went home with an altered view of their universe — the kind of view that clouds can't obscure.

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