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Marvel at the mysteries of the firmament, with a nod to Galileo

Private groups built Boothe Memorial Astronomical Society Observatory in Connecticut and Maine's Starfield Observatory. Private groups built Boothe Memorial Astronomical Society Observatory in Connecticut and Maine's Starfield Observatory.
By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / January 25, 2009
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Ever since the dawn of man, humans have looked skyward and wondered what's up there.

People still do, except now they can look more closely. Around New England, there are more than three dozen clubs catering to stargazing, according to www.astronomyclubs.com, but how many amateur astrologers there are is, rather fittingly, up in the air.

"It's really hard to tell how many people are into astronomy, but the numbers do pick up around major events," said Stuart Goldman, associate editor of Cambridge-based Sky and Telescope magazine, referring to comets, eclipses, and the occasional orbital proximity of planets such as Mars. "When you get those celestial boosts, a lot of people show up at observatories."

Another boost: It was 400 years ago that Galileo trained his new invention, the telescope, toward the night sky. In this, officially the International Year of Astronomy 2009, public stargazing opportunities abound in the region. Admission to most of the following observatories is free, with donations accepted. Some have regularly scheduled viewing nights. Check websites or call for current dates and times, and if you visit in winter, dress warmly since most are outdoors.

Massachusetts
In October 1847, Maria Mitchell stood alone on a Nantucket rooftop with a telescope, discovered a comet, and was launched into history as the country's first professional female astronomer. The Maria Mitchell Observatory honors the ground-breaking work of the Nantucket native. The facilities boast several scopes, including two new 24-inch models. Upwards of 200 people attend public viewings in summer, said Vladimir Strelnitski, director.

3 Vestal St., Nantucket, www.mmo.org, 508-228-9273.

The Judson B. Coit Memorial Observatory, on the roof of the Boston University College of Arts & Sciences building, is used for undergraduate and graduate study, public viewing, and Boston University Astronomical Society projects. Viewings are every clear Wednesday night. Equipment includes a 10-inch Cassegrain type reflecting telescope with a 4-inch refractor mounted as a guide scope.

725 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, www.bu.edu/astronomy/facilities/observatory.html, 617-353-2630.

The Hopkins Observatory at Williams College in Williamstown is the oldest existing astronomical observatory in the United States. Located atop the Thompson Physics and Astronomy Laboratory, it includes a 24-inch Cassegrain telescope. A 14-inch Celestron telescope on a Losmandy mount and a 10-inch Meade telescope are also located on the science center roof, each in separate domes.

33 Lab Campus Drive, Williams College, Williamstown, www.hopkinsobservatory.williams.edu, 413-597-2105.

Connecticut
The Rolnick Observatory dome houses a 12.5-inch f/4.8 Newtonian scope, and on moonless nights, volunteers take out a portable 25-inch Obsession scope, believed to be the largest in the state available to the public, according to Robert Meadows, director. On good viewing nights, 10 to 15 people show up, he said, "not bad for an amateur club." It is open to the public Wednesday and Thursday nights.

182 Bayberry Lane, Westport, www.was-ct.org, 203-227-0925.

The Big Eye, as the Boothe Memorial Astronomical Society Observatory telescope is known, was completed in 1960, after a local group of pro and amateur astronomers formed the Stratford club in 1953. It is run by amateurs, who also take scopes to schools and civic groups in an outreach program. Gear at the observatory includes a 16-inch f/15 Cassegrain and four-inch Unitron Refractor.

Boothe Memorial Park, Main Street, Stratford, Conn., www.bmas.org, 203-375-9673.

Located on the campus of New Milford High School, the John J. McCarthy Observatory was built in 2000, funded by private donations, and has become a huge regional astronomical resource, with some 13,000 visitors since it opened, including school, scout, and church group members. Equipment includes three telescopes, a weather station, a film camera, video cameras, CCD cameras, color filter wheels, an adaptive optics unit, a spectrograph, and other research devices. To honor Galileo, the observatory is building a scale-model solar system that will go throughout the town, each planet scaled in exact size and distance to a 6-foot sun at the observatory.

388 Danbury Road, New Milford, Conn., www.mccarthyobservatory.org, 860-354-1595.

Rhode Island
A hand-cranked dome and telescope lend Old World charm to Ladd Observatory, owned by Brown University, said to be the oldest manually operated facility in the United States. It is located on a hill on Providence's residential East Side, built in 1891 on the insistence of Brown professor Winslow Upton, who came to the university on the condition the facility be built. When the university balked, Upton threatened to walk, so Governor Herbert W. Ladd came up with the $50,000 necessary for construction. Public viewings are Tuesdays, and upwards of 100 or more attend in summer to peek through the 12-inch refracting scope.

210 Doyle Ave., Providence, www.brown.edu/Departments/Physics/Ladd, 401-863-2323.

Another Brown professor, Dr. Charles Smiley, founded the Amateur Astronomical Society of Rhode Island, which became Skyscrapers Inc., which owns Seagrave Memorial Observatory deep in the Scituate woods. The silo-shaped dome, built in 1914, boasts impressive star-gazing power with a historic 8 1/4-inch Alvan Clark refractor, a 12-inch Patton reflector, and 16-inch and 12-inch Meade computer-controlled Schmidt-Cassegrain scopes, in addition to portable scopes.

47 Peeptoad Road, North Scituate, www.theskyscrapers.org, 401-884-1513.

When Ninigret Park was a Navy auxiliary field, planes used to blast off into the sky, making it somewhat fitting that Ninigret is now home to Frosty Drew Observatory. Located near South County beaches, the observatory located in this now wildlife refuge gets more heavily used in summer months, when visitors on Friday nights visit the dome to check the skies through the observatory's workhorse piece, a 16-inch Meade Schmidt Cassegrain.

Ninigret Park, Route 1, Charlestown, www.frostydrew.org.

New Hampshire
Come March, the newly named McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center Observatory will house a Celestron 14-inch scope and a 90mm Coronado SolarMax scope designed for viewing the sun. Located at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium, the observatory expansion is part of a $15 million capital campaign. McAuliffe, a shuttle astronaut who died in the Challenger explosion in 1986, and Alan Shepard, the first American in space, were New Hampshire natives.

3 Institute Drive, Concord, www.starhop.com, 603-271-7827.

Standing outside in the middle of the night in a wind-swept field is a great way to observe the stars at the University of New Hampshire observatory, which hosts public viewings the first and third Saturday of the month, and on special occasions.

DeMerritt Hall, Durham, www.physics.unh.edu/observa tory, 603-862-3996.

Maine
It was a longtime dream of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England to have an observatory, and thanks to its members, that dream came true in 2001 with the opening of Starfield Observatory, home to a 16-inch Meade LX200 GPS Schmidt-Cassegrain and an eight-inch f/15 Zeiss-Jena refractor. The observatory has a 16-by-32-foot roll-off roof: With the sides remaining up, it blocks some of the wind on a cold Maine night of stargazing.

Route 35, Kennebunk, www.asnne.org.

The Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium and Observatory is located in one of the oldest buildings on the University of Maine campus, built in 1900 when it was Maine State College. The observatory is open for public viewing on clear Friday and Saturday nights from September to April. The planetarium can produce a 20-foot model of the night sky for up to 45 visitors per showing.

University of Maine, 5781 Wingate Hall, Orono, www.gal axymaine.com, 207-581-1348.

Vermont
Though the Green Mountain Observatory is technically in Williston, because it is so small and used only by members, public viewings are held at Dorset Park in Burlington, say members of the Vermont Astronomical Society, which owns it. In addition, the club hosts viewing sessions for civic groups and organizations, and as part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, will host a telescope clinic, where people can bring in their scopes and binoculars and get advice on how to improve their viewing techniques.

Williston, www.vtastro.org.

Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, was interested in astronomy, and dreamed of having his own observatory. So when he built his Georgian mansion in 1905 in Manchester, he later added the Hildene Observatory, which boasts an original six-inch Brashear achromatic scope. It is open daily as part of the tour of the Lincoln home and is used for night viewing by the public on a limited basis for special celestial events.

1005 Hildene Road, Manchester, www.hildene.org/hac, 800-578-1788, 802-362-1788.

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at PKandarian@aol.com.

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