One clear night a year, Vermont astronomers open 'secret window' into outer space
Fairfield resident Ben Gillers is looking through a telescope at Saturn.
He proclaims: “That just blew my mind.”
What’s blowing Ben’s mind is that over the course of 10 seconds, Saturn drifts across and then out of the telescope’s view.
“I’m literally seeing the rotation of the earth right now,” Ben says.
Not to mention — Saturn looks just like it does in the pictures, the rings around a globe, yellow. You can even see the little dots that are its moons.
“You see these pictures online of these, like, artistic pictures of galaxies and nebula. It’s like, oh, man, that's like, that's baloney," Ben says. "Then you go ahead and see … the rings through the eyepiece, and it's like, holy freaking cow. This isn't a joke."
Ben’s view of Saturn came courtesy of a telescope belonging to Brian Johnson, a Grand Isle resident.
"My favorite thing is public outreach. Showing people the sky," Brian says. "I’ve got a secret window that allows you to see things that you can't see with your naked eye."
Brian is among several astronomers who, one evening in late summer, brought their giant telescopes to a field in Alburgh, pointed them at Saturn, nebulas and the moon, and invited anyone who wanted to peer through the eyepiece.
"I really enjoy when people see Saturn for the first time, or the moon, and go, 'Oh wow!'” Brian says.
"That’s what Saturn should be named, is 'Oh wow,'" Joe Comeau adds. All these telescopes are set up in his backyard orchard, which he opens up to the public for one night a year with the help of the Vermont Astronomical Society and the Grand Isle County nonprofit Island Arts.
It’s called Spontaneous Evening Under the Stars.
"It's a spontaneous evening under the stars, because we never know when it's going to be clear," Joe says. "And we always take a chance."
He's hosted this event since 2011. This year, organizers made the call on a Sunday — three days ahead of time.
And Joe says anywhere between 40 and 120 people stop by. He puts the word out on Front Porch Forum and has a big mailing list. Organizers also post fliers all over town.
Newcomer Nathan Browneagle saw one in a local supermarket while visiting from Maryland.
“So decided to come and check it out. Me and my daughter,” Nathan says. “When we got up here, people are saying, 'Oh, there's bug spray. There's cookies, there's lemonade. Come and look at the stars. I'm sure people will let you take a peek.' And so yeah, it’s been really friendly.”
Other people return year after year like Dawn Shearholdt, who spends summers in North Hero.
"I always learn something," Dawn says. "You have a lot of people with, I'm sure I'm not allowed to say this, but big-a-- telescopes that are all pointed at different things. And, you know, sharing that with people that... it makes my heart pound fast! It’s so interesting."
People line up behind Terri Zittritsch’s telescope, which is pointed at M57, or the Ring Nebula.
"It looks like a doughnut," Terri says, to some debate — others suggest it's a bagel.
Whatever baked good it looks like, Terri says the Ring Nebula an expired star: "So some stars go supernova, and some stars aren't big enough to explode. So what they do is they start shedding off their layers, and a lot of times they create what looks like a ring."
All along the edges of Joe Comeau’s hilltop orchard, strings of red lights float in the shadowy grass.
“We have red lights so that they don't ruin people's night vision," he says. "And also, so people won't be tripping all over. It really gets dark up here.”
The red lights resemble this photograph Joe shows me, one he’s made of the Veil Nebula. He tells me it’s his favorite one.
"It’s my wife’s favorite too. It’s just beautiful," Joe says.
Gas byproducts from an exploded star lay across a starry abyss in layers of red and blue.
"A mixture of glowing hydrogen gas, and also reflected starlight," Joe says. "And glowing oxygen excited by radiation from stars. So it's just gentle. Lacey."
Joe says he has always been interested in astronomy. He shows me to his backyard observatory, a dome rising from the grass with an opening in the top for the telescopes to look through.
"I have quite a few different telescopes," he says.
But Joe didn’t start using big telescopes or doing astrophotography until 2000, when he says digital photography made everything more accessible.
And he says teaching an astrophotography class for the nonprofit Island Arts is what led to these spontaneous evenings where he and other astronomers share with the public the wonders of the night sky.
"I mean, it's like a national park up there," Joe says. "It's really amazing, really amazing."
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