Now through the end of November, amateur astronomers of all ages, stargazers, and anyone interested in getting an up-close look at galaxies, planets and stars are invited to come on Saturday evenings at sunset to Jefferson Township Park east of New Haven.
The Fort Wayne Astronomical Society (FWAS) will haul out its big Meade 16-inch 400 telescope for everyone in attendance to observe the heavenly display. And, there's no charge.
The telescope, which was donated to the society by Richard Johnston and has been dubbed the Johnston telescope, weighs 275 pounds. The wheeled carrier used to move it to the permanent concrete mount for stargazing tips the scales at 100 pounds.
Once it's clamped down and the power is hooked up, the telescope can swing 360 degrees to lock onto stars in deep space, a nebula, maybe a comet and even a passing satellite.
This is no ordinary telescope. As observatory director Chris Highlen says, the 16-inch diameter mirror captures 4,000 times more light than the human eye and it has magnification of 80 to 300.
“It's computer controlled and has a GPS receiver that we use to center on two known stars for alignment,” Highlen said. “Once that's done, the computer database can identify 180,000 objects in the night sky.
“Before the GPS, we had to use star charts and try to figure where everything up there is located,” Highlen added. “It took more time to find than to observe. Now we just tell it what we want to view with the remote control, and it finds the target automatically. It's quicker and much more accurate."
At Saturday evening stargazing events, “We'll generally have two to four telescopes set up, and our members will be on hand to explain what the viewer is looking at,.” Highlen said. “People are welcome to bring their own telescopes, but no equipment is necessary. We have five or six chairs and a picnic table where people can sit, but most of the time our guests are busy participating in the viewing experience and moving from scope to scope and don't have much time to sit. The only thing they might want to bring is bug repellent.”
According to longtime astronomical society member Gene Stringer, Saturn should be easily found during the next few weeks, but won't be around to view in the fall.
“In addition to Saturn,” Stringer said, “we'll get some good looks at the moon, the double stars of Albireo in the constellation Cygnus (Swan) and some of the deep sky objects identified in the 1700s by Frenchman Charles Messier. He cataloged some 110 objects (M-1 to M-110), including open star clusters, nebulas and galaxies found in various parts of the sky throughout the year.
“M-1, for instance, is the Crab Nebula in Taurus,” Stringer said. “M-8 in Sagittarius is the Lagoon Nebula where stars are being born, M-11 is the Wild Duck Cluster of thousands of stars in one group and M-13 is a globular cluster that is one of the largest in the northern sky. It's about 25,000 light years away, has a million stars, but we can only see 10 percent of them. We should be able to find all of these and more for our guests.”
Highlen suggests that even though there's not much to see before sunset, it's easier to find the society's building in the park if people come before dark.
And since sunset changes every day, prospective stargazers are urged to check the local newspapers and television weather broadcasts for the exact time of sunset.
Before going to Jefferson Township Park, people also should check the astronomical society's website, www.fortwayneastronomicalsociety.com, and click on the clear sky chart. If skies are clear, the telescope will be set up for viewing. If the sky has more than 20 percent cloud cover, the session is scrubbed. It must be clear to observe the stars. They don't operate when it's raining, either.
FWAS, which is 55 years old this year, has high hopes of constructing a permanent observatory in Jefferson Township Park in the next few years. It has collected about $88,000 toward its “Star*Quest” project, but still needs another $130,000 to make it a reality.
The design for the 300-foot-by-80-foot structure includes two retractable roofs, and a 15-foot-by-40-foot viewing area where telescopes can be mounted permanently The Society had an observatory in Fox Island County Park for 30 years, but the presence of tall trees made seeing the heavens difficult at times. The group moved in 2012 to Jefferson Township Park, which is on Webster Road just north of Dawkins Road, about four miles east of New Haven The best way to get there is to take Lincoln Highway through New Haven; it becomes Dawkins Road on the east side. Take that to Webster Road, turn left, and cross the railroad tracks; the park will be about 100 yards ahead on the left. Take the entry road all the way to the back of the park, where the small, white, astronomical society building with the flashing light is on the left. Signs will also point the way.