UNION COUNTY, NJ — Every Friday night at the multi-domed Sperry Observatory, with only the stars illuminating the crowded interiors of the East and West domes, dozens of amateur astronomers and enthusiasts cluster around massive, high-end telescopes, for a chance at seeing out-of-this-world sights.
Anyone can attend the public viewings, which are hosted at Cranford’s Union County College campus. They’re organized by Amateur Astronomers, Inc., a nonprofit started by astronomy enthusiasts in 1949, and also feature educational presentations for visitors.
But the main attraction is the telescopes harbored in Sperry Observatory’s pair of domes. That’s because seeing Saturn’s rings on your computer, AAI members said, isn’t quite the same as looking at them through 24 inches of glass.
“People want to see the telescopes, and we find that looking through the eyepiece — as opposed to looking at a computer screen — people get more out of that. It’s more of a ‘wow factor,’” said Mary Ducca, president of AAI, which made Sperry Observatory its home in the 1960’s. “Our membership runs to about 200 people. We’re one of the largest amateur astronomy clubs in the Northeast. We are open free of charge to the public, weather permitting.”
In the absence of inclement weather, AAI said, they get a steady stream of potential astronomers every week, who are shown the group’s treasured possessions — among them a poster signed by the discoverer of Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh. The most significant of these objects might by the East Dome’s popular 10-inch telescope, though, which was personally created by AAI members in 1972.
The West Dome, for its part, carries a 24-inch F/11 Cassegrain reflector, which is more suited for star-gazing, and less equipped to see the surfaces of planets. AAI members also set up their own telescopes outdoors, especially in the event of a clear sky, for the benefit of anyone who attends.
And a wide variety of people attend the viewings, according to members, including small groups of kids, families, students from Union County College, hardcore astronomers, and all kinds of local residents, who often decide to drop in on a whim.
“It’s local. This is such a gem here. And there’s so many people who live within walking distance but don’t realize it’s open. I was one of them for 15 years. We came here because we were cutting through the college one night, on a Friday night,” said Janice Wilson, whose 6-year-old daughter joined AAI with her more than 10 years ago. “It was a lovely night. We parked and came in, my daughter was in first grade, and we’ve been here most Friday nights since.”
There’s also an educational emphasis at the observatory. Each week, an AAI member offers an astronomy-related presentation on topics including the constellations, the solar system, and how to use binoculars and star wheels. Once a month, a professional guest speaker from a prominent university, NASA or other organizations, offers a lecture of their own.
And for those looking to learn how to operate a telescope, without the help of an AAI member, anyone that’s 12 or older can take a special class on the craft.
“Our club teaches here. If you’re a member, you can a take a course that’s about 10 weeks. You learn how to operate a 24-inch telescope, with a 24-inch mirror and a big white tube. The telescope weighs 500 pounds, the counterweights keeping it balanced weigh 500 pounds, and these kids can take the course to learn how to operate it,” said Janice. “The cool thing about that is I think we’re the only group anywhere, definitely on the Eastern seaboard, that lets someone that young become a qualified observer.”
That kind of training is what comes with being a member of AAI, which regularly hosts other astronomy-related events, aside from the Friday night viewings. The group is behind Star Parties and safe solar observing at Trailside Nature & Science Center, for example, in Mountainside and Sandy Hook State Park. And on every occasion, members have the opportunity to see something thousands — if not millions — of miles away.
“One time we were standing outside because we knew the International Space Station was going to be overhead, and it looks like a very steady star moving,” said Ducca. “One woman we talked to, said ‘wow, they’re really up there, they’re really up there.’”
Viewings are free to the public every Friday evening from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. in all weather (although the domes will be closed in inclement weather), and AAI hosts a public astronomy talk at 8:30 p.m.
Earlier programs for younger audiences, such as scout groups and school children, must be scheduled with the group in advance.