Observing Stars, Zooming Through Space

Alan Rice and Carter Emmart of the American Museum of Natural History
Alan Rice and Carter Emmart of the American Museum of Natural History are two of the guest speakers that the Montauk Observatory have lined up in a partnership with the Hayden Planetarium and the museum’s department of Earth and Planetary Science. Tom Madigan

    Talk about “observing the stars” on the South Fork and people are likely to think of a Seinfeld or a Baldwin before an Alpha Centauri. But that’s what the Montauk Observatory is for — to help those interested in the night sky above the parties and beaches, a twinkling, expanding, mysterious infinity of galaxies and dark matter beyond our comprehension.
    “The Montauk Observatory is a bit of a misnomer,” explained Terry Bienstock of Montauk, the president of the nonprofit organization. And he’s right. The observatory is not located in Montauk — in fact, as some people might say of the planet Pluto, it doesn’t really exist. At least, not yet. “Our programs have been from Southampton to Montauk, and for the past year, mostly at the Ross School,” Mr. Bienstock explained. During the summer there are free educational lectures and stargazing parties for all ages, with a chance to see the skies through a 20-inch Meade telescope with guidance from real astronomers.
    On Saturday night, starting at 7, Andi Piscano will be at the Ross School as part of the Montauk Observatory project. Ms. Piscano will regale the group with an evening of songs and stories about the mythology visible in the summer sky. She brings along a portable planetarium. At 8:30, participants will  join the members outside and search for constellations with the bare eye or with a telescope. 
    On July 16 the Montauk Observatory presented an evening with Carter Emmart, the director of astrovisualization at the American Museum of Natural History’s  Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan. Alan Rice, a Southampton resident who works in the museum’s earth and planetary sciences department, introduced Dr. Emmart. The program spotlighted a 3-D atlas of the universe, where onlookers zoomed through space to land on, say, Saturn and get a 360-degree view from there.
    “It’s all the digital catalogs all brought together into one catalog on software,” explained Dr. Emmart, who looked like the antithesis of a scientist with his long hair, bracelets, and flip-flops. “It allows you to set any planet or star as the center, and then look at the view from there.”
    It’s a model being implemented in other places as well, according to Thomas Madigan, an astronomer, astrophysicist, and astronomy educator at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, who was at the July 16 event.
    Dr. Emmart’s lecture was attended by an audience of around two dozen, ranging in age from 8 to 80. His presentation was listened to closely and roundly applauded before people trickled out, along with Dr. Carter, Dr. Rice, Mr. Bienstock, and other astronomers and scientists, to observe the planet Saturn through the observatory’s telescope.
    Mr. Bienstock said the idea started five or six years ago, when County Legislator Jay Schneiderman made overtures about buying a telescope from Biosphere 2 in Arizona and moving it to Montauk. “[County Executive] Steve Levy vetoed the appropriated money and Jay had to seek other funding.”
    “I was an amateur astronomer as a kid,” he continued, “and thought it was an interesting idea. I thought that there was no reason the community could not privately fund it.”
    That’s when Mr. Bienstock met Susan Harder, a Springs resident and founder of the Dark Sky Society, and Sean Tvelia, a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, who teaches geology and chemistry at Suffolk County Community College’s department of physical science, along with maintaining the college’s robotic observatory in Riverhead. Mr. Bienstock also met David Larkin, and it was that group that agreed to advance with the goal of looking toward the stars. The telescope was located at the Theodore Roosevelt State Park in Montauk, but only temporarily.
    “In the meantime,” Mr. Bienstock said, “we’ve been able to have lectures and star parties and planetarium shows for thousands of East End residents and visitors, always free.”
    It seems very possible that the Ross Upper School on Goodfriend Drive may become a permanent location for the soon-to-be-named observatory. “Once we have a permanent site, we will need to raise $75,000 to $100,000 to build the building and operate a full-time program,” Mr. Bienstock said. “We hope to do that this year.”
    “I think people would be surprised to know how many East End residents from all walks of life privately treasure the beauty of our night sky,” said Ms. Harder, who was the recipient of the 2010 environmentalist of the year award given by the Sierra Club. “However,” she added, “if we take for granted that our view of the untainted Milky Way will be seen forever, we may lose it to misdirected, unshielded, and excessive night lighting.”
    The observatory’s programs resonate strongly with her, she said, as it “focuses our attention upward.”
     Ms. Harder then paraphrased a Senegalese ecologist: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
    More can be learned about the Montauk Observatory and the Saturday evening program by visiting montaukobservatory.com.