Extreme Stargazing

Dark Skies and The APO


The Adirondack's Dark Skies

It's hard to look at a nighttime satellite image of the United States, and not be astounded by the amount of man-made light that is reflected into our night sky. When you glance at the photo, your first instinct is to start identifying both large and small metropolitan areas by the concentration of light that appears on the image. Then you begin to take a closer look at the photograph, and you find yourself identifying some dark pockets scattered throughout the country. In the Northeastern United States the glowing lights become more and more condensed, with the exception of a sizeable dark hole between New York's Capital region and Montreal, Canada. This dark hole you are looking at is the 6-million-acre, Adirondack Park. 

Satellite Image of the Northeastern United States (NASA-NOAA Image)

These dark skies are one of many benefits of living within the pristine wilderness of the Adirondack Park. Since there is little interference from light pollution, the park offers up some of the best stargazing in the northeast. On a clear night, words cannot do justice for the breathtaking views you see overhead.

Winter views over Raquette Pond in Tupper Lake (Shaun Ondak Photo)

Stargazing Taken to a Whole New Level 

The Adirondack Public Observatory

In Tupper Lake, we are proud to say that we take Stargazing seriously (Okay, maybe not too seriously... because we do have a lot of fun with it too)! This year, we celebrated the grand opening of a new and growing observatory designed to bring you closer to the wonders above. On July 11, 2014, The Adirondack Public Observatory, also known as the APO, officially opened the doors to their state-of-the-art facility on Big Wolf Road in Tupper Lake. The facility, which is currently in its first stage of a three-building structure, features a roll-off-roof observatory that holds four mounted telescopes, a variety of smaller telescopes and accessories, and a control room with a variety of tech equipment including that used for astrophotography.

The Adirondack Public Observatory, Tupper Lake (Marc Staves Photo)

From Concept to Reality

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with co-founder & amateur astronomer, Marc Staves, who was happy to talk with me about the evolution of the Adirondack Public Observatory. Back around 2000 Marc and fellow amateur astronomer, Tim Moeller started to knock around the idea of building an observatory and astronomy education center in Tupper Lake. After unsuccessfully trying to seek government funding for their project, they realized that in order to turn their dream into a reality they would need to follow a framework similar to some of the other "grassroots" efforts like that of The Wild Center (Note: at this time remember, The Wild Center was yet to be a reality, having opened their doors in 2005). "In 2004 we finally figured we had to form a not-for-profit and just kind or strike out on our own."

They started fundraising in 2004, and soon thereafter, they received their not-for-profit and incorporation in the State of New York. The APO then formed a very diverse board that has representation from around the Northeast. In 2011, after some successful fundraising efforts (and lots of star parties), they were yet to reach the final goal necessary for completing the project. The board decided to expedite getting the project off the ground, by breaking the build-out process up into a series of phases.

In 2012, they broke ground on phase one: the roll-off-roof observatory, and by spring of 2013 they pretty much had the facility up and running. The following year, the Observatory celebrated its grand opening.

The crew from Backyard Observatories out of Ohio work on building the roll-off-roof facility (APO Photo) 

Stargazing at the APO

With phase one of the building now complete, The Adirondack Public Observatory is able to offer a variety of programs to the public. One of their most popular is stargazing from the observatory. Visitors can enjoy free stargazing on the first and third Friday of each month. Weather permitting, stargazing begins at 30 minutes after dark. In addition, private group sessions are available by donation. Visitors stargazing at the observatory have the opportunity to use the equipment, receive instruction, and ask the team of astronomers for answers to any questions they may have.
During my time with Marc at the Observatory, we toured each of the large mounted telescopes. Simply listening to his excitement as he explained the mechanics and capabilities of the scopes is an experience in itself. His energy is simply contagious. On stargazing nights, that energy only multiplies as the 3,000 pound roof rolls away and the telescopes are put into action.
Marc Staves reviews the restoration process of the award winning, Everest "Old Town Pump" Telescope

Programs & Events

In addition to their stargazing schedule, The Adirondack Public Observatory also offers a variety of educational programs, guest lectures, and fun events throughout the year. During the winter months, one of the Observatory's popular events is "Skiing with the Stars," which is held in conjunction with the volunteer crew at the Tupper Lake Groomed Cross Country Ski Center. Marc, along with his friend John Gillis - who helps maintain the trails at the ski center, started hosting star parties on the Cranberry Pond Loop of the ski center. Skiers and snowshoers can venture out to Cranberry Pond where they've set up portable telescopes and a bonfire allowing you to observe the stars from the dark skies on the pond. Listings for the "Skiing with the Stars" dates and other Adirondack Public Observatory events can be found on our events calendar.

"Skiing with the Stars" event at the Tupper Lake Groomed XC-Ski Center (Marc Staves Photo)

Protecting the Product - Switching to Dark Sky Friendly Lighting

Back in 2003, as plans for the Adirondack Public Observatory began to unfold, Marc, who also works for Tupper Lake's Municipal Electric Department, approached the Village to discuss reducing the amount of wasted light that the street lighting system emits into the skies. He explained to me that when you look at a satellite image of the earth (like the one above) what you are looking at is exorbitant amounts of wasted light... and money for that matter. His presentation was well received by the board and the community and over the years since, the village has gradually converted to a "dark sky friendly" lighting system. The majority of the conversion consisted of switching the type of lenses used in the street lights. Rather than using sag lenses that scatters lighting, they now use straight lenses that point the light down to where it is needed. Another benefit to switching to these types of light fixtures was that you could get the same out of lighting with a lower wattage, which cut not only the light pollution but energy waste as well. 

What's Next for the APO?

The Adirondack Public Observatory has big plans to continue to build out the remainder of their facility. When talking with Marc, I asked him what the next stage in the build out would be. He explained that their focus now is on the purchase of a 20" diameter research grade telescope. It would be housed in a traditional dome structure  - the kind you imagine when you think of an observatory. The design of the telescope they have not completely decided on yet, but as they near their fundraising goals for the next phase they will hone in on the specifications that will best meet their needs for the project.

Architectural renderings of the potential layout of the completed Adirondack Public Observatory. (APO Image)

Come Stargaze With Us!

Winter makes for some of the best stargazing of the year! The cool, crisp winter nights provide an even higher clarity due to the lack of moisture in the air. So grab your woolies and head on over to the Adirondack Public Observatory for some spectacular stargazing. After an evening of amazement, you will want to kick-back and rest in the comfort of a toasty warm room. Consider making a weekend of it and visit some of Tupper Lake's other star attractions while you are here!

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