Eyes on the Sky

Sam Stonebraker, president of the Cornell Astronomical Society, mans Irv, the 92-year-old telescope in the dome of the Fuertes Observatory at Cornell University, during last Friday's public viewing night.  (Photo by Clara MacCarald)

Last Friday, temperatures were below freezing, but stars were visible for the first Friday in a long stretch. “This isn’t bad,” said Art Samplaski, a volunteer from the Cornell Astronomical Society. “If it was windy, that would be bad.”

For over 40 years, the Cornell Astronomical Society has been inviting students, faculty, and members of the public to explore the night sky at the Fuertes Observatory during their public viewing nights. Volunteers from the club run the telescopes every clear Friday night starting at 8 p.m, or earlier, and going as late as 2 a.m. On cloudy nights while school is in session, they might offer lectures or movies and tours of the observatory.

Depending on the night, hundreds of people might stop by, especially during the summer. Cold, clear nights like last Friday draw a smaller but hardier crowd because the telescope dome and deck are unheated. To get started, volunteers turned a big wheel to open a slit in the dome, letting in the night air while revealing the sky for the 92-year old telescope. “For those of you who don’t know,” Samplaski announced, “this is Irv the telescope.”

The Irving Porter Church Telescope, as it is formally called, is an equatorial refracting telescope. Samplaski explained that “equatorial” means the telescope can move both north/south and east/west. “Refracting mean it’s a big spy glass on steroids,” he said. While Samplaski searched for the planet Neptune, he cautioned, “Let me warn you that Neptune doesn’t look like much - basically a little blue thing. But you can just make it out.”

So that people can better see faint celestial objects, visitors are asked to avoid using sources of bright lights, including smart phone screens. A red glow illuminated the dome and the deck, where volunteers set up two smaller telescopes and a mounted pair of binoculars. Samplaski explained that red lights interfere the least with people’s night vision because human eyes are the least sensitive to that wavelength.

Out on the deck, Samplaski focused the binoculars on the Pleiades, a star cluster. Six are visible to the naked eyes, but many more are present. “I can count 50 on a good night,” said Samplaski. Most volunteers are undergraduate students, but Samplaski, whose background is music theory, is a community member from Groton who has been involved with the public viewing nights for nine years.

To give people a sense of the scales involved, Samplaski uses a lot of analogies. He tells people to imagine running 100 meters, and then to multiply that by four million to reach just past the moon. Sunlight travels that distance in one and a third seconds, he said. Another analogy he likes is that if Ithaca were our galaxy, the Milky Way, then Dryden would be Andromeda Galaxy, the farthest object visible to the naked eye.

Inside, club president Sam Stonebraker was aiming Irv at the Double Cluster. He said they like to show the public big, impressive things such as star clusters and planets. “I’ve always loved the night sky and astronomy and telescopes,” he said. He stumbled across the club one night when lights on at the observatory caught his attention. This is his second year volunteering at the observatory.

“We’re actually kind of unique,” said Stonebraker. The club has the key to the facility, so they can open up the dome to members or special groups other times than just Friday nights. While Cornell has state-of-the-art equipment elsewhere on campus, Irv has aged well and works well for someone who has always wanted to look through a giant telescope.

Ogbo Awa of Ithaca, who has always wanted his own telescope, has been coming to the public viewing nights for more than 10 years. “I love it in the summer,” he said. Still, he thought the viewing might be a little better in the winter, possibly because the cold might affect the surrounding light pollution. His favorite sights are the seas on the moon.

Constellations are another crowd pleaser. “It’s really fun learning constellations,” said Fiona Daley, a new club member, but “also very difficult.” She explained that she had learned the constellations at the beginning of the semester, but now the constellations are in different parts of the sky. Daley was optimistic despite the cold. “Tonight’s pretty nice. We’ll see how long we can stay awake for,” she said.

Before going, you can call the Fuertes Hotline (607-255-3557) to check if the observatory will be open.

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