South Bergenite Column: The Observatory

Jim Wright, who keeps this blog, also writes a twice-monthly nature column for the South Bergenite. His latest is an interview with Dr. John Sloan (above left) and J.J. Rusher of DeKorte Park’s McDowell Observatory.

One of the under-appreciated gems of the Meadowlands Commission’s DeKorte Park is the William D. McDowell Observatory, which offers free star-gazing to the public two nights a week.

I recently interviewed Dr. John Sloan (referred to as JS below), the observatory’s chief astronomer, and his colleague J.J. Rusher (referred to as JJ below) to find out what’s happening under the dome.

  The observatory officially opened five years ago this month, and has been very successful. What’s been your biggest challenge of late?
  JS: More than four months after Hurricane Sandy, some people out there still don’t know the observatory is open. People see signs that the park itself is closed some of the time and get confused. Our message is that the observatory is open every Monday and Wednesday night from 8 to 10 for public viewing, conditions permitting, and we’d love to have you come on by.

You also have a pretty cool program on some Friday nights, too, don’t you?
  JJ: Yes — the program is called “Re-friend Your Telescope,” and it’s designed for people who maybe received a telescope as a gift and never took it out of a box, or they used their telescope a long time ago and it’s been gathering dust in their attic, and they want to be reintroduced on how to set up and operate the telescope and use the eyepieces.

The interview continues below.

How often is this program?
JJ: Once a month — we try to have it when the Moon is in a good phase.
JS: We even have this program when the sky is cloudy. It has been pretty popular.

What has been the biggest surprise so far?
JS: The number of people who have come out to use the observatory. One night last month it was 16 degrees out and windy, yet we had a nice group of people who stayed on.
We now have a lot of folks who now look at the schedule and come back to see certain planets. People come back especially to see Saturn.

Because of the rings?
JJ: Yes. It’s amazing to watch people as they watch Saturn through the telescope and the enjoyment they get.
JS: We get a big response from people looking at the Moon as well.
JJ: People are also surprised how much they can see this close to New York City, despite the light pollution. The number of people who bring their children is great, too.

What are some of the question you get from kids?
JJ: Anything from “Why are stars different colors?” to black holes to distant galaxies to the structure of the universe.

What will people be seeing from the observatory in the next few weeks?
  Jupiter and Saturn will visible late this month — Saturn near closing time. Later in April will be a great time to see Saturn in particular. There’ll be a lot great things to see!

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