Bernard Cognon stood next to a roughly 5-foot tube pointed at the moon on a chilly, foggy Friday evening in a field at Grafton Lakes State Park.
Cognon, of the Albany Area Amateur Astronomers, was explaining to the dozen or so people gathered for a star party how telescopes evolved from simple magnifying lenses to the powerful system of mirrors and lenses they are today. In particular, he was talking about Ireland’s Earl of Ross, who used mirrors 3 to 4 feet across made of a polished metal to view what we now know are other galaxies.
Cognon continued, describing Edwin Hubble and moving on to Pluto before cutting himself short and inviting people, kids first, to peer into the telescope for an up-close view of the moon.
Through the small black viewer, the moon was thrillingly close and clear, full of crags and craters cast in sharp relief by the same sunlight that was quickly fading from the field. One man, a member of the club, attempted to locate a 50-foot cliff, “straight as an arrow,” that he thought should have been visible that night on the moon’s surface.
“It’s a pretty neat sight,” he said, talking as if the moon were a tourist attraction.
Not only was the moon close, it was moving. The movement, though subtle, reminded the viewer that this was not a photo. This was the moon, 238,900 miles away, connected to viewer with a few mirrors and lenses.
The Albany Area Amateur Astronomers hold star parties, which are free and open to the public, once or twice a month at Grafton Lakes State Park, the George Landis Arboretum in Esperance and other locations. Guests are welcome to bring their own telescopes, but not required to.
Last Friday’s star party drew a mix of people, from couples on a date to amateur astronomers and those interested in getting started. It didn’t take long for strangers to connect over stargazing experiences, standing close and pointing here and there at the sky as they recalled past sights, shared tips and wondered at the sky above.
Cognon reminded the crowd, which changed by the hour as people came and went, that Earth is rotating at about 800 miles per hour, which means the telescope was, too.
If a viewer spent a few minutes staring into the lens, the moon slowly slipped off to the left as the Earth continued its rotation.
“Now you’ll see dark areas; they’re gray. See the gray areas?” Cognon said as a visitor peered into the telescope. “Those are lava flows, like from volcanoes. And the whiter areas are mountains and rocky areas.”
As it got darker, Cognon refocused the telescope on Saturn, which hung there in the view field, a perfect little picture of the famously ringed planet.
Visitors to this star party lined up at two different telescopes, pointed at various celestial objects throughout the night. When Cognon wasn’t at one of them, he was chatting with visitors about stars and planets, and pointing out constellations with his powerful green laser, turning the night sky into a living planetarium.
The star parties usually get started around dark, but Cognon said there is no set closing time.
“If we’ve got a good crowd like this and the bugs aren’t biting too bad, we’ll stay out for hours,” he said.
For information and dates of future star parties, visit www.dudleyobservatory.org.
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Categories: Schenectady County