Spacing Out

Spacing Out

Daily Nutmeg is on vacation this week. Meantime, we’re republishing some of our favorite stories from the past few months. Like this one:

Scientists suspect it rains diamonds on Saturn. New images show the sun is strapped with ropes of plasma writhing like a nest of vipers. Not only is our solar system a complex set of circulating objects, but the system itself is hurtling through space at breakneck speed.

These are the kinds of notions that make Sidewalk Astronomers of New Haven lift their eyes from the asphalt to the stars.

Staking out a spot near the intersection of Broadway and York, the group typically meets on Tuesday and Saturday evenings from mid-spring to early autumn, when the sky is clear and the sun’s about down. Enthusiasts bring their own telescopes—as short as nine inches and as long as four feet—to point at particularly interesting parts of the night sky, letting passersby take a peek, ask questions, wonder.

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They’ve chosen that location for a reason. It provides a good view of the night sky, they say, especially the ecliptic—roughly speaking, the plane on which all the planets orbit the sun. The nearby buildings are squat enough that even in the dead of winter, when the ecliptic is low in the sky, you can still see planets skimming over roofs.

Joe Alcott III and his youngest, Joe Alcott IV, have been stargazing for five revolutions around the sun. Unlike Stanley Kubrick’s space odyssey, theirs began not with Strauss but with heavy metal. On Halloween weekend 2010, Alcott Sr. was planning to meet friends in Manhattan to catch a slew of metal bands converging on the city. A mutual friend put him in contact with Tom Hoffelder, also heading to the show, and the two agreed to carpool. What Alcott didn’t know is that Hoffelder goes bonkers for astronomy. He’s the kind of person who would travel hundreds or thousands of miles to join a stargazing convention, be it in Pennsylvania or New Mexico.

Excitement in his voice, Hoffelder called as Alcott was waiting in the parking lot where they’d agreed to meet. “Do you know what we’re going to see in Manhattan?” he asked. “Windows? Girls?” Alcott replied, mystified. “No,” said Hoffelder. “Jupiter!”

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“I thought he was a lunatic,” Alcott admits. He was ready to pull out of the lot on his own when Hoffelder’s Suburban rolled in, with a telescope that filled the back half of the car. By the time they arrived in Manhattan, Alcott’s curiosity was piqued. They watched as two of Jupiter’s moons passed in front of the “bringer of jollity,” in what’s called a “double transit.” Alcott ended up catching only two of the seven bands he’d planned on seeing. The rest of the time he watched a higher stage.

Soon after, Alcott bought his own scope and began playing with the optics. There are stars in his eyes as he talks about the things he’s seen: Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, the “Ring Nebula” in Lyra, “Comet Lovejoy”—a.k.a. “The Great Christmas Comet of 2011”—and far-off Uranus.

That summer, Alcott and Hoffelder began the New Haven chapter of the larger Sidewalk Astronomers organization—an international amateur astronomer association whose mission is to bring telescopes to the public. They show people there’s no need to build an observation dome in your own home—that astronomy can be an economical layman’s game.

Leo Taylor, who joined Sidewalk Astronomers of New Haven in 2013, is a retired aerospace engineer who’s now taken up astrophotography. From his home in Hamden, he’s sniped shots of the “Lagoon Nebula” in Sagittarius, the M-13 cluster in Hercules, the Andromeda Galaxy and hundreds of other stellar objects. Perhaps the most impressive photos in his stock are a series of deftly captured action-shots capturing the space shuttle Discovery docking with the International Space Station at 17,000 miles per hour.

The stars are getting nearer all the time. And while spaceflight is going to remain very, very exclusive for the foreseeable future, the Sidewalk Astronomers explore the final frontier in a way that just about anybody can replicate. The telescopes they set up during public-facing viewing sessions are reasonably priced, generally costing between $120 and $300, and if that’s still too hard on the wallet, SANH’s Facebook page occasionally posts videos on how to make your own ’scope.

As you might expect, amateur astronomy culture attracts do-it-yourselfers, reclaiming for regular people a vast field of inquiry otherwise assumed best left to experts. In 1999, Hoffelder made his own 11-foot tall telescope, which he sold for around $15,000. In his backyard in Hamden, Taylor has built a shed to house LX3 OTA and Stellarvue Nighthawk telescopes, with which he chases his astrophotography ambitions.

For the truly star-crazy, the view from New Haven may not be sufficient. Recently, following his internal lodestar, Hoffelder went the extra 300 miles and moved north to Maine—an Eden for stargazers, with areas where the sky is free of light pollution’s haze and the cosmos shine through all the clearer.

But for the Alcotts, the curbside view from New Haven is enough, and not just because of what’s on the other side of the telescope. “We’ve made hundreds of friends through it,” Joe Sr. says. “We’ve even sold a few people on astronomy.”

Sidewalk Astronomers of New Haven
Meeting at York Street and Broadway (map)
on clear-skied Tuesdays and Saturdays at sundown
(203) 645-5125 |
Facebook Page | Umbrella Website

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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