A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Look Up At the Sky, Not Down At Your Phone

by Melissa Orozco-McDonough   


Before the existence of the Internet, computers, television, radio, skyscrapers, and weathermen, there was the sky, and it was glorious. Ancient civilizations looked to the skies for almost everything they needed to know. Want to know when to plant your crops? Look upward. Want to know when to harvest them? Look upward. Want to know what time of day it is, where you are, or what direction you’re heading? Well, you get the idea.


The Smolen Observatory at SUNY New Paltz is in the middle
of an open field, to provide maximum field of vision for sky 
gazing. Photo by S. Mitrovich.
History teaches us of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, Hubble, Sagan, Hawking—famous scientists and astronomers who spent their lives trying to make sense of the world around and above us. Yet somewhere along the way we, as civilians, stopped looking up. We put our eyes and minds on sleep mode, deciding instead to rely on our ever-evolving hi-tech gadgets and word of mouth from (sometimes) poorly trained meteorologists. Well, most did anyway, but there are those who remember, those who still choose to look to the infinite cosmos above. Those like the members of the Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association.


The Association was founded in the 1980s by a group of astronomy amateurs and enthusiasts and still exists today. They currently host a monthly lecture series, as well as astronomy nights at SUNY New Paltz’s John R. Kirk Planetarium, open to both members and the public alike. The lectures occur on the third Tuesday of the month and feature guest speakers on a wide range of astronomy-related topics, as well as tech experts in the field. Occasionally, professors from local universities will get involved as well, with the overall goal of the lecture series being to educate and inform. The upcoming November 18 lecture will be on the Herschel Telescope, a $1.4 billion project undertaken by the European Space Agency back in 2000, which by operating in the far-infrared part of the spectrum was able to detect and pick up some of the coldest objects in space.


Astronomy Nights are held on the first and third Thursday of the month at the John R. Kirk Planetarium and Smolen Observatory, on the SUNY New Paltz campus. John R. Kirk was a SUNY New Paltz faculty member in the 1960s and became the planetarium’s first director, going on to create a large list of educational programs not only for college students but for local citizens and schoolchildren as well. The programs he created were unique in that they incorporated elements of astronomy along with history and classical music, evoking both thought and emotion from viewer participants. Kirk passed away in 1979 and the university petitioned the College Council to have the Planetarium renamed in his honor.


Each Astronomy Night begins with a planetarium show, and then, weather permitting, moves to the Smolen Observatory for telescope viewing. The Observatory is named for Jack Smolen, who constructed the optics and framework of the Hayden Planetarium telescope. With 25 years of hard work he constructed his very own observatory in Hurley, The Eagle’s Nest Observatory, which he opened to the community for many years. Smolen and his wife later gifted the observatory to SUNY New Paltz, along with a bequest that allowed the university to build an on-campus observatory, which they named for Smolen.


Willie Yee, President of the Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association, shared that astronomy has been a passion of his since childhood, but he didn’t get his first telescope until after retiring. Joseph Macagne, Vice President of the Association, first started looking up at the moon through binoculars around age 18-19 and a few years later acquired a telescope. For 52 years now he has been observing the sky, and he says he’s still learning, as there’s always something new to discover. “We’re dealing with the infinite, so there are no limits,” he said.


Yee and Macagne spoke of the Association’s outreach and educational programs, and how important it is for the children to have the opportunity to learn, early on, about what exists outside of our planet. Willie’s own daughter grew up to receive a Carl Sagan Exoplanet Postdoctoral Fellowship from NASA, and now works with their Exoplanet Exploration Program. Both Joe and Willie suggest that the best way to get involved in astronomy is to join a local club such as theirs, as it provides a good way to learn about telescopes and see them in action. In their effort to spread knowledge and enthusiasm for the viewable infinite, the group also does events for schools and community organizations and has even worked in conjunction with various festivals and other types of events.


In order for any sky observation to be possible though, the skies must be clear. Lately that has become an issue for astronomy enthusiasts. Aside from the many cloudy days and nights that make observation impossible, light pollution is the main source of sight obscurement. City and town lights across the world are literally drowning out the skies and making it harder and harder to see anything at all. Light pollution, in fact, can be bad for our health as well, and has been linked to cancer, as it disturbs the body’s natural production of melatonin (sleepy hormone). The chances that the skies are actually good enough for viewing, per Yee and Macagne, are only about one in four or five—so here’s hoping the skies will be clear for their upcoming observation events.

To learn more about the Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association and their events, or to become a member visit meetup.com/mhastro/