If you contemplate the outer reaches of the universe, what celestial phenomena would you like to see?
A meteor shower? A comet that only appears once a lifetime? How about the terrain of the moon or Mars?
Fortunately, you don’t have to drive far from Harrisburg to get your heavenly fix.
The Naylor Observatory lies just outside of Lewisberry in York County, a short hop across the river though far enough away from the lights of the city and highway to offer a good look at the sky—on a clear night, that is.
The Astronomical Society of Harrisburg (ASH) holds regular viewing events there. Provided the evening’s conditions are right, you’ll be able to observe the night sky through several telescopes and share knowledge with the amateur astronomers at ASH.
The club holds regular viewings for the general public, which can draw a few hundred people. Visitors experience a distinctive ambience both in the sky and on the ground. Dotted along the observatory’s steep driveway is a series of red lights to gently guide your eyes.
“Red light best allows our eyes to transition to night vision, because the rods in our eyes don’t respond to red light,” said ASH member Courtland Barnabei.
Also red-lit on the observatory’s grounds are the compact outbuildings, four of which contain either retractable or removable roofs. These buildings have no heat or air conditioning, surrounding the telescopes with a stable ambient temperature. Inside, the telescopes are permanently mounted to underground piers.
“Wind is a huge factor for telescopes because air currents can distort images,” said ASH Secretary James Davis. “The mounting stabilizes them.”
You can bring your own telescope or use one belonging to ASH, but you don’t necessarily need one.
“The best observing is looking straight up,” said Chip Templin, ASH president. “Your eyes are looking out through various layers of atmosphere. But looking straight up cuts through the fewest number of layers.”
Using the club’s telescopes is an ASH membership perk.
“Most people make the mistake of buying a telescope, but then only use it a handful of times because it’s cumbersome to use or hard to set up,” said Barnabei. “You can use a free online star chart and binoculars instead.”
Some hobbyists even build their own rudimentary telescopes. You would think that a telescope is full of complicated mechanisms, but it’s actually mostly hollow, comprised of just two mirrors and a focuser eyepiece encased in a fiberglass cylinder. Light enters, bounces between the mirrors and through the lens to magnify faraway objects. Depending on the magnification power, some telescopes can see farther than others.
“The sky in Harrisburg doesn’t get dark enough to use certain telescopes,” Templin said.
The more sophisticated telescopes can automatically point to different objects in the sky simply by typing the object into a navigator controller. Davis routinely teaches classes on how to use telescopes, and he shared the secret for taking clear, detailed pictures of the moon. Press the lens of any camera to the telescope eyepiece, guide it to the moon, then click.
If you’d like to locate other celestial objects, ASH members recommend a number of good reference materials, accessible both at the observatory and online.
The “Observer’s Handbook” is like a celestial almanac, with different editions available for different regions. If you’re looking for a visual representation where you can cross-reference date, time of day and coordinate positions, try the “Skygazer’s Almanac.” If you want to be able to recognize what you’re observing when you locate something through the eyepiece, consult “The Messier Catalogue,” a set of 110 celestial objects catalogued by French astronomer Charles Messier.
Some celestial events are predictable or cyclical, so observers have plenty of advance notice to plan a proper star party, which is like a nighttime tailgate party for a heavenly happening. Cloudynights.com provides an online crowd-sourcing forum for sky-gazers. Having a worldwide reach allows hobbyists to leverage pictures, information and logistics of star parties worldwide.
If you’re looking for Pennsylvania’s utmost star party, Templin recommended Cherry Springs State Park, a dark sky park located a few hours north in Potter County, 2,300 feet in elevation.
ASH members often build vacations around premiere observing locations. In the United States, the southwestern desert and parts of Hawaii have the best conditions because of their sparse populations and lack of industry. Internationally, the best place to observe is the mountains of Chile. Also, “the Australian outback is dark, and it has some of the largest telescopes in the world,” said Davis.
ASH facilitates events and classes with local schools, educational centers, the State Museum planetarium and HACC. Regular offerings include 101-level astronomy, identifying constellations, cosmology and telescope how-to.
For ASH members, observing celestial bodies is a lifelong pursuit.
“With new information coming in every day, it’s impossible to learn everything,” said Doug Grove, ASH vice president. “Visitors can leverage the knowledge of the members who have been observing as long as we have.”
Indeed, astronomy is attractive because it’s a “learning hobby,” said Barnabei.
“The benefit of Naylor is that the membership facilitates the learning process,” Barnabei said. “You can come to our observatory with questions, and you’re certain to find a member who once asked themselves that exact same question.”
The Naylor Observatory is located at 670 Observatory Dr., Lewisberry. For more information about the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg, including classes and viewings, visit www.astrohbg.org.