July 17, 2019

Morven and Mountain Lakes Are Summer Skywatch Locales

EYES ON THE SKY: Astronomy buffs are hoping for clear weather on three upcoming evenings, when local experts will bring out their telescopes to view the sky above. (Photo by Charles R. Plohn)

By Anne Levin

For astronomy enthusiasts, summer is prime time to search the night sky. The weather is balmy. People are on vacation, giving them time to watch for meteors, look for passing satellites, and peer through telescopes and binoculars for deep sky objects like the Ring Nebula, the Coathanger, or the Dumbbell Nebula, to name a few.

There are skywatches scheduled for three locations in coming weeks, starting with Stargazing at Morven on Thursday, July 25. Stargazing at Mountain Lakes House is Wednesday, August 7, and Rancocas Nature Center has planned Star Watch/Astronomy Night for Friday, August 30. Princeton University’s Peyton Observatory holds regular star watch events with its 12-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on the roof of Peyton Hall, with the next two scheduled for July 31 and August 28.

The program at Morven Museum and Garden starts at 7 p.m. with a twilight tour focused on Morven’s previous residents, who might have gazed at the skies in earlier times. Next is a lecture by Gene Allen of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton. Following Allen’s presentation, “The Night Sky and Our Place in It,” the gathering moves outside at 8 p.m. to start observing the darkening sky. Visit morven.org for details.

A retired American Airlines pilot, Allen has been an amateur astronomer for years. While light pollution makes local skies less than ideal for viewing, he said, there is still plenty to see.

“The most exciting targets in the night sky for most people are the two biggest gas giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn,” Allen said. “So in summer, when you have time and it’s nice to be outside, and they are nicely visible, that makes for better viewing.”

Saturn “is a great sight because you can see the rings,” Allen said. “A few years down the road, the rings won’t be as obvious because we’ll be seeing them edge-on.” As for Jupiter, “It’s always fun because you can see the four largest moons of Jupiter, even with good binoculars.”

The Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton is also involved in Stargazing Night at Mountain Lakes House, which begins at 7:30 p.m. on August 7. Sponsored by Princeton Public Library, this event will also include participation by Princeton University’s Department of Astrophysical Sciences.

Astronomers will be on hand to help with viewing through telescopes, as well as finding celestial objects visible with the naked eye. The Friends of Princeton Open Space will guide short walks and listen to the sounds of the night. Cookies and lemonade will be provided. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. Mountain Lakes House is at 57 Mountain Avenue. Visit princetonlibrary.org for details.

The annual Perseid Meteor Shower is at its peak August 12 and 13 this year, but it won’t be easy to spot the meteors streaking through the sky. According to the website space.com, the display will be dimmed by a nearly full moon.

“Unfortunately, the moon will be very close to full on the night of the peak, which will wash out the fainter Perseids,” said Bill Cooke, a NASA meteor expert. “The Perseids are rich in fireballs, so you’ll still see Perseids; you just won’t see the show you’ve seen on nights when the moon has not been around. It won’t be a total wash-out, because the Perseids are rich in bright meteors, but the moonlight is going to spoil most of the show.”

Weather permitting, the annual Star Watch at Rancocas Nature Center on August 30 is probably a better bet. The event was rained out last year and the year before. Sponsors of this year’s program, which is co-hosted by the West Jersey Astronomical Society, are hoping for better weather.

The event starts at 7:30 p.m. During the nature center’s last two star watches in 2015 and 2016, participants were fortunate enough to spot Saturn’s rings one year, and Jupiter the other. Beginning and experienced stargazers are welcome at this year’s program, and are urged to bring flashlights, lawn chairs, and binoculars. Telescopes will be provided.

The center is at 794 Rancocas Road in Westampton. Admission is $15 per person; $40 for a family of up to five. Visit www.RancocasNatureCenter.org for details.