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Tupper Lake's new observatory brings the stars closer to home

Photograph by Mark Bowie

It’s a Friday night in late fall and I’m in Tupper Lake at an Adirondack Public Observatory (APO) stargazing session. More than a thousand people have come here to peer into the heavens since the place opened in July 2014. Tonight, though, the sky is blanketed by clouds and I’m the only member of the public to show up.

I’m talking with the observatory’s co-founder, Marc Staves, and volunteers and board members Gordie Duval and Carol Levy, when the cloud cover yields. Staves isn’t convinced at first; “Sucker hole,” he calls the patch of clear sky. But the clouds get thinner and thinner, and stars are suddenly all above us. We put our eyes to one of the APO’s four permanently mounted telescopes and look into the distance.

First my guides show me a globular cluster—a ball of hundreds of thousands of stars at the edge of the Milky Way. “They’re some of the oldest objects that are in the night sky right now,” says Duval, a retired Tupper Lake High School physics teacher. I tweak the focus back and forth, back and forth, until these very faint pinpricks of light grow sharper. There are at least 150 such clusters in the Milky Way alone. The stars, light-years apart in reality but practically touching in the viewfinder, are all gravitationally bound to each other.

Then I see Albireo, a double-star system comprised of one newer star and one older star. They appear as a single bright orb to the naked eye, but even a decent telescope can separate the two, and the telescope I’m looking through—a Schmidt-Cassegrain with a 12-inch aperture—is a lot better than that. I watch these two balls of fire, one blue-green, one amber, 430 light-years away. Amazing.

That’s when the clouds roll in again. Show’s over. It’s enough of a tease, though, to make it clear why the viewing in Tupper Lake is as good as anywhere. One look at a nighttime satellite photo of the U.S. tells you why: While other places are speckled with light—or, along the Boston–Washington DC corridor, a long river of it—the Adirondacks is gloriously black. Little development means little light pollution, and that means telescopes are able to pick up things they simply can’t in more crowded areas.

“We have the darkest skies in the Northeast, with the exception of northern Maine,” says Levy, a downstate transplant who rekindled a lifelong love of astronomy when she moved here in 1993. “And east of the Mississippi, the only other place that has really dark skies is the Everglades—and that’s a really crummy place to set up an observatory.”

This is why astronomy buffs come from all over to take a peek through the APO’s telescopes, all of which are donated. Some are GPS-enabled, so operators need only punch the coordinates into a PC or handheld controller and the telescopes whir into position, serving up the desired celestial object. Other telescopes rely on what Staves calls “the greatest computer ever invented”—brainpower—to put the lens in position. These include a 12½-inch model made in the 1920s and nicknamed the “Old Town Pump” because of the shape of its base.

Some visitors are so astounded by what they can see when looking at a truly dark sky that at first they don’t bother with the fancy glass. “This guy drove up from Connecticut,” Staves recalls. “He had a van and he had a very large telescope in the back of the van. He didn’t even take it out for an hour—he just stood there and looked up.”

Staves, 52, is an amateur astronomer who lives in Tupper Lake and works for the municipal electrical department. He was in his 30s when he and APO co-founder Tim Moeller, a correctional officer who lives in Tupper Lake, had the idea for an observatory. They used the nascent Wild Center, also in Tupper Lake, as inspiration, imagining they could help make their town the “Earth and sky center” of the Adirondacks. Ignoring those who told them it was just a pipe dream, they formed a nonprofit and, through memberships and private donations, raised the $280,000 needed to build the observatory.

That kind of money gets you a big shed with a 4,000-pound retractable roof. One minute, you’re standing inside, looking up at trusses; the next, a glorified garage-door motor is sliding that roof off the building and onto pillars in back. You’re left standing surrounded by four walls while staring into the night sky.

The observatory—a 28-by-32-foot wooden structure—sits on a concrete pad that is specially designed to minimize vibrations, which can make it harder for telescopes to focus. The building contains a heated control room with computers that can operate some of the telescopes remotely or be used for astrophotography.

Now that the APO is open, Staves says he is flabbergasted by the enthusiastic response. Duval agrees. “I taught 32 years at the high school,” he says. “I get done here on a Friday night when it’s busy and I feel like I taught all day. You’re exhausted because there’s just so many people with so many questions. But it’s great. It’s invigorating.”

Now Staves is turning to ideas for expansion. Someday, he and Moeller would like to open an educational center next to the observatory, which sits on 3.9 acres near Little Wolf Lake that they purchased from the town. They’re already offering classes to local school kids.

First, though, they want to buy a research-grade telescope that will help amateur observers gather data on the brightness of stars, discover asteroids and comets, and more. The equipment and dome to house it would cost about $500,000. “Amateur astronomers actually can contribute significant data to professional astronomy that’s useful,” Levy says.

Amateur or not, it’s almost impossible to walk away from the observatory without a sense of existential awe. Even those who stare through telescopes all the time and can speak on topics such as the Coriolis effect without first looking at Wikipedia get caught up in the overwhelmingness of it all. “You sometimes feel pretty insignificant,” Duval says.

“One of the things I always talk to people about is the fact that things are so far away, and they’re so big, and there’s just so much, how are we ever going to get out there to explore?” he says. “And the answer is, it’s just like here on Earth. People can sit in front of their computers and they can go anywhere in the world on the Internet. And we say, that’s what astronomy is. It’s the Internet of the universe. Because we can stay right on Earth, we can explore, we can study, we can learn, we can find out all kinds of information, and we don’t even have to leave this planet.”

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