Looking for dark skies in New York

NASA imagery shows the distribution of city lights in the northeastern United States in 2003. The site for the Adirondack Public Observatory is in a particularly dark region of northern New York.
NASA imagery shows the distribution of city lights in the northeastern United States in 2003. The site for the Adirondack Public Observatory is in a particularly dark region of northern New York.Nasa / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

High altitude, low population and little light pollution make the Adirondacks a stargazer’s dream location. Look up from New York’s northern forest and with the naked eye watch a cascade of stars. With a good telescope, see the rings of Saturn in color.

Subzero winter nights are particularly good, with low humidity and clear, magnified skies, amateur astronomer Mark Staves said. That’s when he likes to take his telescope outside in Tupper Lake.

Staves, fellow amateur astronomer Tim Moeller and other enthusiasts plan to build the first public observatory in New York’s northern mountains to expand the stargazing audience.

The not-for-profit Adirondack Public Observatory in its first year has raised about $40,000 toward a $500,000 goal, according to board members. They have chosen a site in Tupper Lake, about 110 miles (175 kilometers) north of Albany. The parcel, at 1,600 feet (487 meters) in elevation, overlooks the town beach and campground at Little Wolf Pond.

“We are in what’s called a dark puddle here,” Staves said, noting the contrast in nighttime satellite images of the Earth. “We can actually see the Milky Way, which is something you can’t actually see most places now.”

Looking for the right site
An observatory site was offered near the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks, scheduled to open this summer on the other side of the village of Tupper Lake, but there was too much light pollution from nearby Sunmount Hospital, said Jan Wojcik, observatory board member.

Board members are considering a telescope with a 16- to 20-inch (400mm to 500mm) aperture, more powerful than the one at Clarkson University in Potsdam, where Wojcik is a humanities professor and observatory director.

They expect to spend about $20,000 for the instrument.

“You could make out detail in distant galaxies,” Wojcik said. “You could see craters on the moon that look so detailed you could almost imagine climbing down the walls and walking across.”

At California’s Palomar Observatory, the comparable 18-inch (457mm) Schmidt Telescope, first operational in 1936 and now retired from research, was used to discover nearly 50 comets, including Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1993. By contrast, Caltech’s Hale Telescope, considered the world’s largest until 1993, has a 200-inch (5-meter) aperture.

Replacing streetlights
Meanwhile, Tupper Lake’s municipal utility is replacing old streetlights with recessed fixtures that aim beams downward to reduce local light pollution.

“Eventually it’ll save the village money,” said former Mayor Sandra Strader, “and once we knew the observatory was going to happen, we decided it would help them also.”

Staves, 43, observatory president, grew up in Tupper Lake and works as a utility lineman. He says the clarity of the night sky has diminished somewhat since he started looking through a telescope as a boy, likely degraded by more light pollution, including some from Montreal.

The Adirondack Park Agency, which regulates development inside the 6-million-acre park, considers exterior lighting plans before approving building permits, spokesman Keith McKeever said. Permit conditions include full cut-off outdoor fixtures that direct light downward and motion detectors to shut lights off automatically.

While some Adirondack municipalities that issue building permits are new to the technology, Wojcik said satellite pictures of the region at night still show marked contrast. “Our place, the park, is one of the few dark places in the country. Hardly any light makes it far enough for the satellite to pick up.”

Big plans
The observatory, which organizers hope to complete in three to five years, is planned to have a domed building with the large telescope, imaging equipment and a digital camera, which would be used for research and education and could be connected to the natural history museum’s theater during significant celestial events, Staves said.

It would have a second building for public viewing, with other telescopes and a roll-off roof, and a control center with a classroom, computers and quarters for visiting students.

“On most clear evenings, it’ll be open and people can come in and learn about basic astronomy and learn a few of the constellations,” Staves said.

Enthusiasts already gather for “star parties” around the Adirondacks.

“Anybody shows up,” Wojcik said. “You can look at any number of telescopes. ... Different scopes focus on different things. Usually there’s a line behind each one.”