A winter wonderland ... look up! Wishing you knew what star you wished upon? The cold, clear light of night is the time to find out

The Orion Nebula, in the middle of the sword of Orion, is one of the brightest nebulae visible to the naked eye and is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth. The Orion Nebula, in the middle of the sword of Orion, is one of the brightest nebulae visible to the naked eye and is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth. (Herb Bubert/New Hampshire Astronomical Society)
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / January 24, 2010

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Who needs fantasy games or blue-skinned sci-fi melodramas when the great hunter, the god of war, and the deposed ruler of the universe are all afoot?

Nature’s compensation for the short days of winter are the long nights, where Orion, Mars, and Saturn (see above) rule the dark skies. If you have always wanted to see starlight and planet-glow firsthand, the crisp seasonal air often offers crystalline visions of the night sky. Observatories and astronomy buffs all over New England stand ready to show you around the celestial neighborhood.

One of the great viewing opportunities this winter takes place next Friday and Saturday nights, when the Amherst Area Amateur Astronomers Association (“the 5As’’) holds a rare winter observing program at Wilder Observatory on the Amherst College campus. The occasion is the Mars opposition: when the sun and Mars are on exactly opposite sides of Earth, an event that happens roughly every 26 months. The planet will be visible from sunset to sunrise. It won’t be this bright again for a few years.

The Wilder telescope was fabricated in 1903 by legendary telescope makers Alvan Clark & Sons of Cambridge. Its 18-inch front lens makes it one of the more powerful refracting telescopes still in use, and in 1907 the massive instrument was shipped to the high desert in Chile to make some of the first detailed photographs of Mars during that opposition. (It was immediately returned to its McKim, Mead, and White observatory.) The formidable telescope still employs its original clockwork mechanism. Tom Whitney, president of the 5As, says the 18-inch Alvan Clark is the telescope equivalent of a Stradivarius violin. “Everyone wants to come to the recital played on a Stradivarius.’’

Other vintage Alvan Clark instruments are operating elsewhere in New England. A 7.5-inch Clark telescope was installed at the Maria Mitchell Association’s Loines Observatory on Nantucket in 1913. In winter, the observatory opens to the public on the Friday and Saturday nights closest to the first quarter moon. The timing presents strong sideways shadows on the moon, providing crisp images of lunar features, including the Mitchell crater named for the pioneering Nantucket astronomer (1818-89). The guide scope mounted on the side of the Clark instrument is fitted with the lens from Mitchell’s own 1859 Clark telescope.

“Our open nights are often the first introduction to astronomy for many people,’’ says Vladimir Strelnitski, director of astronomy at the Maria Mitchell Association. Nantucket is a great spot for stargazing, he adds, because light pollution is minimal. Ninety-minute programs usually include viewing of the moon and planets and of distant galaxies and nebulae. Visitors also get to see the massive modern 24-inch research telescope in operation.

The 8-inch Alvan Clark at the Maynard F. Jordan Observatory on the University of Maine, Orono, campus is available for public stargazing on clear Friday and Saturday nights when the mercury rises above 10 degrees. Friday night sessions follow the free indoor star show at the university’s planetarium, and Bill Shackelford of the Penobscot Valley Star Gazers astronomy club is usually there to show visitors the skies. “Most people are amazed to see Jupiter or Saturn through a telescope like this,’’ he says. “You can usually see a moon or two. We also look at a few globular clusters and the impressive Ring Nebula in the constellation Lyra .’’

The venerable Rhode Island astronomy club, Skyscrapers, opens its rural Seagrave Observatory in North Scituate every clear Saturday night for public viewing “unless we’re snowed in,’’ says president Bob Horton. Among the club’s four top-notch telescopes, the 1878 Alvan Clark 8 1/4-inch instrument takes pride of place. Visitors get a full tour of the telescope, and “then we look at whatever is prominent,’’ says Horton. That includes Saturn, “which always looks so much more vivid than in photographs.’’ The club also employs a 12-inch Newtonian telescope built by a member in the 1920s and two modern, computer-controlled Meade telescopes.

Horton is also associated with the Ladd Observatory at Brown University. Although somewhat plagued by Providence’s light pollution, this archetypal 1891 observatory features a vintage 12-inch refractor telescope. Open every clear Tuesday for public viewing, the observatory often attracts 100 or more visitors in warm weather - fewer in the winter. In addition to watching Mars this winter, Horton expects spectacular views of the Orion Nebula.

Marc Stowbridge, chairman of public viewing at the New Hampshire Astronomical Society, or NHAS, waxes poetic about anticipated views of the Orion Nebula. He explains that it is visible to the naked eye as the faint middle star of Orion’s sword. “But through a telescope,’’ he says, “it looks like someone took a neon sign of multiple colors, squashed it up in a bag, and emptied it into the sky. There are bright glints of green and blue and red - little baby stars.’’

NHAS members staff the Skywatch on the first Friday of each month at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, N.H. In addition to using the center’s own computer-guided 14-inch Celestron, members bring their own telescopes that Stowbridge says vary “from delightful little refractors to 12- to 14-inch siege cannon reflectors that you have to go up on a stepladder to see the eyepiece.’’ Stowbridge describes the Skywatch as both a social event and an “existential experience. You’re looking up at the Milky Way and suddenly you realize it consists of zillions of stars. Then you start looking at them through a telescope. . . . What looks like one star, like the Beehive Cluster, jumps out as dozens or hundreds of stars. You feel the immensity of the universe.’’

The John J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford, Conn., specializes in observing near-Earth asteroids (the kind that figure in disaster movies). Researchers have discovered four such objects since the observatory was completed in 2000. The independent facility, located at New Milford High School, has three state-of-the-art telescopes: a bright 16-inch Meade, a 4.2-inch wide-angle astrograph for making images of broad swatches of the sky, and a dedicated solar telescope with filters for studying the surface of the sun. “Second Saturday Stars’’ programs include a slide talk before gazing at whatever is prominent on a given night. Monty Robson, observatory association president, adds that visitors are welcome at any time. “Just call to see if anyone is around.’’

Pounding swords into plowshares, the Westport (Conn.) Astronomical Society, or WAS, built its Rolnick Observatory on top of a Cold War-era missile radar site. “It’s the highest spot in Westport,’’ says WAS member Phil Flynn. “Unfortunately that means we get hit by lightning every so often, and it fries the electronics. But the concrete pier makes the telescopes rock-steady.’’ The society holds public nights every clear Wednesday and Thursday. Winter viewing is largely limited to the computerized 12 1/2-inch Newtonian telescope inside the dome, though in warmer weather volunteers roll a 25-inch Dobsonian telescope from its storage shed to let visitors get a gander through the “light bucket,’’ the largest telescope accessible to the public in Connecticut.

The Westport astronomers especially welcome youngsters.

“The first guy or gal to walk on Mars,’’ says Flynn, “is sitting in an elementary school classroom today.’’

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at

If You Go

All stargazing programs are predicated on having a clear night for observation. Call the information number for any last-minute announcements. Since telescopes must be the same temperature as the outdoor air, winter stargazing is a chilly affair. Bundle up! Except where noted, all programs are free to the public.

Wilder Observatory
Amherst College

Snell Street, Amherst

Loines Observatory
Maria Mitchell Association

59 Milk St., Nantucket


Maynard F. Jordan Observatory University of Maine Orono


Seagrave Observatory 47 Peeptoad Road

North Scituate, R.I.

Ladd Observatory
Brown University

210 Doyle Ave., Providence


McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center
2 Institute Drive, Concord, N.H.


John J. McCarthy Observatory
388 Danbury Road

New Milford, Conn.


Rolnick Observatory
Westport Astronomical Society

182 Bayberry Lane

Westport, Conn.


Starwatch close to home

Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory
60 Garden St., Cambridge


Boston University Coit Observatory

725 Commonwealth Ave.

617-353-2630 opennight.html

Gilliland Observatory Museum of Science

Science Park, Boston


Merrimack College Observatory

North Andover