On the road: Great success in New York City

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Night falls in Central Park with the Moon shining above buildings. //Credit: David J. Eicher
On Saturday evening, October 20, the Amateur Astronomers Association (AAA) of New York hosted a very successful Urban Starfest, a public stargaze in which hundreds of would-be astronomy enthusiasts got their first views through a telescope. Senior Editor Rich Talcott and I traveled to New York and were proud to have helped sponsor the event for Astronomy magazine. Al, David, and Sandy Nagler and others from Tele Vue Optics turned out in force and actively participated with a battery of telescopes on hand, as did Mike Peoples from Adorama. The American Museum of Natural History and the Astronomy Foundation also helped sponsor the event. AAA President Marcelo Cabreara and Vice President Susan Andreoli were active leaders throughout the night, which brought together more than 25 telescopes and 600 enthusiastic viewers of the night sky in New York’s Central Park.

Rich and I arrived in the park’s Sheep Meadow, a huge, open grassy area used for sports and relaxation, by early evening. The area is just south and east of the “Strawberry Fields” memorial to John Lennon, on the west side of the park, east of 66th through 70th streets. We got lucky with the weather, steady rains having passed through the day before. Our star party day was clear as a bell, with some occasional clouds having appeared earlier in the day but by evening time a clear blue sky above. Throngs of football and frisbee throwers dominated Sheep Meadow until dinnertime; afterward, our astronomers began to show up, and we transformed the area into a platform for viewing the heavens.

The Naglers set up a group of refractors outfitted with fine eyepieces close to the entrance side of the meadow, and Mike Peoples and his collaborators from Adorama established ground nearby. The more than two-dozen scopes were splayed in an east-west line that stretched across most of the meadow, the majority of the scopes belonging to members of the AAA. Luminescent glow sticks marked the scopes, and as darkness fell and the first scopes began to point at the waxing crescent Moon, shouts of “ooh” and “aah” spread here and there as visitors began to wander into the park to get their looks at cosmic wonders.

Neither Rich nor I had ever observed from Central Park before, and as the sky darkened, we were amazed at just what we could see from the center of one of the largest and most light-polluted cities on the planet. The three bright stars of the Summer Triangle peeked out overhead, and a short time later Cassiopeia was visible low in the northeast, and the figures of the Great Square of Pegasus and of Andromeda filled in. It was an incredible sight to be viewing constellations from the middle of New York!

More and more people filed into the meadow, and lines began to form at the scopes, which were essentially locked onto one target each because everyone wanted the next look at this or that. Marcelo and Susan dutifully ran up and down the line and helped many people. Many young observers were present — couples who were interested in astronomy and many moms and dads with their young kids in tow, all of them generally getting their first telescopic views.

In the center of the Tele Vue area, Al Nagler showed off the Moon. David Nagler actively switched eyepieces and moved various scopes here and there and detailed for a wonderstruck crowd the views of more distant objects — the Double Cluster in Perseus, with its sparkling stars, and even the Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object most viewers at the Starfest had ever seen. The Tele Vue area was highly active, and Al and David were constantly chatting with the viewers, giving them the amazing stories behind what they were seeing. It was a great moment of manufacturers in action, taking astronomy to the streets.

As the night darkened slightly more, other targets rang out, with hundreds of people milling from scope to scope to get a glimpse of each new object. There were particular craters on the Moon. There was the Ring Nebula. The double star Albireo. And lots more. It was truly impressive that one could take more than just a casual dip into the deep-sky universe right from Central Park.

Around 8:30 p.m., I was handed a bullhorn as Marcelo and Susan gathered a good part of the crown to hear an impromptu lecture on the cosmos. I spoke about getting away from the ordinary, mundane, “2-D” workday world and appreciating being part of a vastly large 3-D universe that always surrounds us, and of which we are an integral part. I spoke about the objects we were viewing, what they are, how they got there, and what they mean to the cosmos as a whole. I spoke about what an exciting time it is for the science of astronomy, from the Curiosity rover on Mars to the discovery of an exoplanet around Alpha Centauri B to the coming of what we hope will be the brilliant Comet ISON a year from now. I spoke for about 25 minutes about all manner of astronomical research, from the formation of the Moon to the fate of life on Earth to the number of civilizations that may exist in the cosmos. Many outstanding questions followed.

Jupiter provided a coda on the hours-long stargaze. When it was high enough to observe by about 10 p.m., a number of the scopes migrated over to the area where the planet cleared the trees, and excited shouts rang out from kids and parents alike who got their first views of the giant planet and its line of four bright satellites.

It was a spectacular evening, an amazing experience observing right from the heart of a major city, and a great triumph for the AAA. Everyone who came together to put on this event should be congratulated, and I know that Rich and I enjoyed meeting with dozens of readers and would-be readers and talking about astronomy all night. What a delight it was.

The following evening, Rich and I were treated to a magnificent dinner by the AAA’s officers, and we came away with some exciting ways in which we can work together on future events. On Monday, I was privileged to spend all day with Al Nagler, who picked me up in the city and drove me up to Tele Vue in Chester, New York, where I spent the day with him and David, and got a behind-the-scenes tour of the factory. We discussed some exciting collaborative plans to bring astronomy to more people in the future, and I’ll write more about that tomorrow.

Suffice to say, New York was a smashing success. Kudos to all who participated.

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