Astronomers, invited guests and members of the Montauk Observatory popped a bottle of sparkling water last Thursday evening, August 9, to celebrate the inaugural use of their professional-grade observatory.
They scanned the night sky for constellations, planets—and an unexpected shooting star made a cameo appearance in the southern sky.
Eight years ago, after much searching by the Montauk Observatory board members for the funds to buy one, a dome for the observatory was donated by an anonymous East Hampton resident who had kept it on his property.
Finding a home for the observatory, though, proved a challenge. Extended negotiations with New York State and Suffolk County officials inched very close to approval but were rejected. Then, the Ross School agreed to house the 20-inch Meade RCX 400 telescope and observatory not far from its tennis courts on Goodfriend Drive in East Hampton.
“You can actually see the Milky Way galaxy in the southern sky,” Dr. Mike Inglis, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Suffolk County Community College, beamed on Thursday. The Ross School campus offers open fields and little light pollution—and, on that evening, clear skies that made it almost ideal for star gazing.
“This is the largest telescope in a public observatory on Long Island,” said Sean Tvelia, a member of the Montauk Observatory’s executive board and a professor at Suffolk County Community College.
The telescope is intended for public use, via appointment or through events held by the Observatory. Students and stargazers, with the help of astronomers trained in configuring the professional-grade telescope, will be able to access the telescope in person, and even through online programs that the Observatory is working on getting up and running. In addition, the Observatory acquired-smaller scale telescopes for research and patrons to utilize, such as a Dobson telescope.
“The whole idea is to make this available to students,” said Terry Bienstock, president of the Montauk Observatory. The Observatory also offers free astronomy lectures, including one this past June at Guild Hall by NASA astronaut and U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Randolph Bresnik, who in December 2017 returned from 139 days in space as the commander of the International Space Station.
The dome-shaped observatory shifts its position as the telescope is configured by a professional astronomer using a computer, to viewing specific locations in the sky. “The computer speaks to the telescope and feeds the information to the dome,” Mr. Tvelia said. “The dome will shift to where the telescope needs to point.”
According to Mr. Tvelia, people before long will be able to log onto the observatory website at home and ask the telescope to view specific planets through the night. The telescope will able to work remotely, taking pictures of the night sky and uploading pictures to the observatory’s website.
The night was a test run to make sure everything was set up correctly for future use. The first photo taken on Thursday evening was of Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system and the fifth planet from the sun. The telescope allowed for clear views of the planet’s orange color, stripe-like pattern, and four of Jupiter’s moons.