Celestial bodies can be seen from Cranford observatory

Photo by Jennifer Rubino
Amateur Astronomers members meet Fridays at William Miller Sperry Observatory at UCC. The group also invites guest speakers, and members of the group offer programs for children. On May 26, the presentation ‘Mars or Bust: The Hazards and Highlights of Getting to the Red Planet’ will take place.

CRANFORD, NJ — Amateur Astronomers Inc. is one of the largest astronomy clubs in the United States. With more than 200 members, the group meets weekly at William Miller Sperry Observatory at Union County College in Cranford. The telescopes are open every Friday evening for free celestial viewings, with a free presentation for general audiences on astronomy at 8:30 p.m.

“From September to May, we have a guest speaker on the third Friday of every month,” club President Mary Ducca told CranfordLife in a May 5 interview. “Admission is free and the presentations take place at Roy Smith Theater or the Main Lecture Hall of the college. We usually have a professor from a university or a professional astronomer. This March, we had Jeffrey Krugger come talk about his book, ‘Apollo 8,’ that’s going to be published soon.

The first Friday of each month, club facilitator Kathy Vaccari, of Maplewood, presents a lecture called “What’s Up: A Down to Earth Sky Guide,” to give an overview of what’s visible in the night sky during that particular month.

“Some months are known for great meteor showers and this changes year to year,” Vaccari said May 5. “This month’s meteor shower is best viewed between May 3 to 10 around 4 a.m. … A meteor shower is named after the constellation by which it appears.”

The group also invites guest speakers, and members of the group offer programs for children. On May 26, the presentation “Mars or Bust: The Hazards and Highlights of Getting to the Red Planet” will take place.

“Our mission is to help educate and promote astronomy. In 1949, members built the 10-inch reflector telescope. We purchased the 24-inch reflector. On Friday nights, we operate our two telescopes, weather permitting.”

During the May 5 presentation, Vaccari focused on what planets would be visible during the month of May.

“This month we will be able to see Jupiter,” she said. “Saturn will also be rising early in the morning later this month, and the rings of Saturn can be seen with a telescope. Jupiter is part of the constellation Virgo, which has a total of 26 exoplanets, the most of any other constellation. If a star is blinking, it’s most likely an exoplanet, which is a star with a planet around it. An easy way to locate many of these constellations and planets is by looking at the Big Dipper.

“There are also clusters of stars. An open cluster contains hundreds of stars, but a globular cluster contains thousands of stars. Our sun is part of an open cluster. Stars have both a name and a number.”

The group also works with libraries to train them how to use telescopes. They are currently working with Clark’s Rotary Club to loan them telescopes which will then be loaned to the public.

“We also teach our members astrophotography,” Ducca said. “Some of our members do great imaging. Members are also permitted to borrow books from our library to learn as much as they wish about astronomy.”

Members of the group enjoyed the presentation and were excited to discover what would be visible during the night sky this month.

“It was interesting to see the overview in the sky and see without much equipment,” John Kakora of Clifton told CranfordLife at the event. “Some of the bright stars such as Sirius and Arcturus are easy to spot and it was interesting to learn how to locate other things from the Big Dipper such as Jupiter and the constellation Hercules. The bigger the scope, the more stars you can see.”

Some members go to the monthly meeting to make a list of everything they’d like to look for during that month.

“I make a list of objects I can see each month,” Ken Uani of Clifton told LocalSource. “When the weather is nice, I go out and look at them with my telescope. I’m more familiar with the constellations now.”

The monthly presentations are recommended to everyone, regardless of age.
“Kathy does a wonderful job every month,” Michelle Tofel of Union told CranfordLife at the May 5 event. “It’s great for any age group. Anyone can understand and feel comfortable viewing the night sky. I teach sixth grade and tell my students to come to the presentations. Every week there are different speakers and anyone can be dazzled by what they see.

“The 24 inch telescope upgrades and 10 inch telescope built by members of the organization required a lot of blood, sweat and tears. We reach out to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and on Saturdays we go to Trailside to observe, if the weather permits. We got a NASA grant for students and teachers to do projects and evaluated it with them. Teachers came with students from all over New Jersey.”

Members are passionate about the work they do with the public to teach astronomy.

“In Westfield, the group does a reach out program where they bring telescopes and teach people how to use them,” Al Witzgall of North Bergen told CranfordLife after the event. “We’re all children at heart. We have a telescope street fair in Cranford to see the sun safely during the eclipse on Aug. 21 of this year. In 2092 there will be a sunrise eclipse.”

The telescopes at the observatory are the second largest available free of charge to the public.

“This is the only college observatory free of charge with the second largest telescope available to the public,” Bonnie Witzgall of North Bergen told CranfordLife at the event. “I’m in charge of the art display, which changes every two months. This display’s theme is ‘space in advertisements.’”

Anyone 12 years and older with an interest in astronomy is welcome to apply for membership in Amateur Astronomers Inc. Annual dues are 21 dollars with sustaining and sponsoring levels available. Additional family members who live at the same address are welcome to join for five dollars. “Sky and Telescope” and “Astronomy” magazines are available at group rates.