At twilight: how high the moon?

(David Lyon for the Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / July 15, 2007

CHARLESTOWN -- Les Coleman and the night sky go back a long way . "As a 7-year-old boy, I saw Saturn through my neighbor's telescope and I was hooked," he recalls. Two years later he bought a box of military surplus lenses and cobbled together his first telescope with a mailing tube as the barrel and a tomato paste can for an eyepiece. "That first night I saw four moons of Jupiter through my own telescope."

Six decades have passed since his initiation, and Coleman's enthusiasm hasn't waned. But now, as director of the Frosty Drew Observatory in Ninigret Park , he has bigger and more powerful toys at his disposal. "I'm an amateur astronomer, but so was Sir Isaac Newton," he says. "And Einstein."

The observatory opens for public astronomy nights every clear Friday night of the year . As the sun sets in a murky smear and night begins to creep over the landscape, Coleman arrives to unlock the door of the observatory, which resembles an 18-foot-high galvanized trash can with a swinging, rounded top. Technically, the time is "civil twilight," with only the moon, some planets , and a few of the brightest stars visible. As Coleman flips the switch to illuminate the interior, a golden shaft of light spills out the door.

He talks as he sets up the observatory for the evening, turning on the computer system, checking the motors that retract and close the overhead shutter and the others that spin the entire roof to provide a clear path of vision to any spot in the heavens.

On this evening in early June, alas, those heavens are less than perfectly aligned. The full moon sounds intriguing, but Coleman says that the "worst time to see the moon is in full face. You want to see it in profile with more contrast." Indeed, the bright moon is simply washing out the stars around it, and a warm front riding up from the southwest is overrunning the cool air at ground level, creating patchy cloud cover. But our chances of peering into the depths of the universe are better here than anywhere along the East Coast.

NASA photos indicate that the former Charlestown Naval Air Station -- once designated for a nuclear power plant but now a public park and national wildlife refuge -- is the darkest spot on the entire Eastern Seaboard , from Georgia to Bar Harbor, Maine . When the observatory was established in the late '80s, "there was nothing out there," Coleman says, gesturing toward the ocean. "Not even a lighthouse. Except for a slight glow in the east from Providence and Warwick, we had a completely dark sky." He also notes, ruefully, that the ever-expanding bright lights of Foxwoods, just 12 miles away as light travels , have wiped out the western sky for astronomical observation.

But whatever the shortcomings of this particular evening, Coleman remains ever the enthusiast. "Summer is a grand time for astronomy," he says. "The center of our own galaxy rises above the horizon, and you can see stars whirling around the black hole in the center. Farther out, there are the globular clusters that go around our galaxy like planets around the sun." His voice takes on a tone of wonder. "Some of them are the most glorious things you can see in the sky."

Before he fires up the big telescope -- a 16-inch Meade LX200 installed in 1999 to replace an earlier instrument -- he brings out a 52-year-old Questar , once the end-all and be-all of backyard astronomy and virtually identical to a model carried by astronauts aboard the Mercury space capsules. The sky is now in "nautical twilight," with the horizon just barely illuminated. He takes the telescope outside, and tries to sight on a planet sitting low in the eastern sky, but nearby trees obscure the view. So he shifts the angle, twirls a few gears, and invites us to look. The eyepiece is filled with what looks like a barren artificial Christmas tree. "That's a cellphone tower two miles away," he says.

Back inside the observatory housing, Coleman rolls back the clattering shutter and turns on the big Meade, explaining how it is anchored deep into the ground so as to resist footfalls and other bumps and jiggles. The telescope hums and twists, orienting itself to true south on the horizon. Networked to a small laptop computer that synchronizes a star chart with the time, latitude, and longitude, the telescope can home in on tens of thousands of astral bodies.

But not this night. Oh, what a little moonlight can do. The moon glare and the high overcast have closed down the deep sky views. Coleman is clearly disappointed, but then he thinks to punch a few numbers into the control pad.

The telescope twists and rises, reaching out into the night for a faint glimmer in the sky. Coleman adjusts the eyepiece and invites us, one by one, onto the raised platform that surrounds the telescope. And there, centered in the darkness, are Saturn, its rings, and at least one moon.

The sight that inspired 7-year-old Les Coleman all those years ago remains just as magical today.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers based in Cambridge, can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go
Frosty Drew Observatory
Ninigret Park, Charlestown, R.I.
frostydrew.org

Directions: Ninigret Park is 93 miles or about two hours from Boston. Take Interstate 95 south through Providence to exit 9, Route 4, which becomes Route 1 south. In Charlestown, watch for the sign to Ninigret Park (left turn across the divided highway).

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