Raj Pandya, a professor in the SUNY New Paltz Physics Department, runs programs for the public at the John R. Kirk Planetarium on the campus. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Astronomy aficionados, children, adults, students, seniors — just about anyone who has an interest in the night sky and his or her place in it — have been flocking to the free public programs presented every first and third Thursday of the month at SUNY-New Paltz’s John R. Kirk Planetarium and the Smolen Observatory. In fact, the shows, which begin with a stimulating view of the sky in the Planetarium’s dome theater, along with different themes every night, end with guests being able to look through telescopes at the Smolen Observatory and see the jewels in the night sky for themselves.

“Astronomy, the night sky and one’s place in the universe have fascinated people throughout history,” said Dr. Amy Forestall, one of the inspirations behind this ongoing public program, as well as the director of the Observatory and an assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy at SUNY-New Paltz. “Anyone from children to seniors and science buffs to philosophers can appreciate the programs, be inspired by nature and learn something new and interesting.”

In fact, the programs have become so popular that Dr. Forestall and her colleagues and volunteers have decided to add on a second show for the upcoming Nov. 17 program. “Our recent Planetarium shows have been filled to capacity, and we do not want to turn away any visitors; so for the next program on Nov. 17, we will offer back-to-back Planetarium shows,” she said, noting, “In the future we will play it by ear. If the Planetarium shows fill up, we will do a second Planetarium show immediately following the first.”

While the Planetarium has a 44-person seating limit, there is no capacity limit at the Observatory for telescope viewing. “So that will always be available, as long as the sky is not cloudy. Visitors may come and go as they please during the Observatory portion of the night,” added Dr. Forestall.

Asked what prompted SUNY to host these “Night Sky” free public events, she said, “One of the missions of a regional college like SUNY-New Paltz is to serve as an intellectual resource for the community. It is a given that facilities like the Planetarium and Observatory should be shared with the public. For Smolen Observatory in particular, Mr. Smolen, whose bequest enabled us to build the Observatory, said that his intention in creating his own Observatory was ‘to bring as many young people here as I can, to show them the beauty and the mystery of the planets and of the nebulae and the galaxies.’ With the new facility named in his honor, we are continuing this tradition.”

To that end, SUNY-New Paltz has paid for the rights to show the award-winning documentary The City Dark on Nov. 30, which focuses on the various implications of the disappearance of the night sky through light pollution — specifically on human behavior, astronomers’ work, migratory bird patterns, animal habitats and a potential link to increased breast cancer. Asked why they chose to screen this documentary, Dr. Forestall said that as a “neighbor of New York City, we can easily see the stark contrast between the night sky in that City and a more rural area like New Paltz. Many of our students and Observatory visitors are amazed to see so many stars in the sky, but even small communities like ours experience light pollution. Creeping light pollution is a quiet but important influence on modern civilization. Although astronomers as are keenly aware of this problem, what makes The City Dark such an interesting film is that it also explores the biological effects of artificial light on animals and human beings, as well as the societal and cultural effects of not seeing our place in the universe.” For more information or to make reservations, go to www2.newpaltz.edu/~forestea/CityDark.

With the enthusiasm of Dr. Forestall and Raj Pandya, director of the Planetarium, as well as volunteers like Maureen Ford, the programs have reached school groups, senior groups, Scout troops and every segment of the community from New Paltz to throughout the region. “It’s been such a pleasure to work with Dr. Forestall and Raj,” said Ford, a retired schoolteacher and social worker, as well as an avid amateur astronomer who has been volunteering to assist them with the public-outreach portion of these programs and events. “We’ve had such a huge response from the community,” she said, reiterating that they will likely move to two shows an evening to accommodate the crowds. “It was so hard to turn people away the other night. They were disappointed, and some of them had traveled quite a ways.”

Ford added that as a resident, she thinks it is “great that SUNY-New Paltz is making the greater public aware of the incredible facilities they have, which our tax dollars pay for, and continuing their commitment to public outreach and programming and education.” She said that Dr. Forestall is a “breath of fresh air. She has such energy!”

Also, Ford is attempting to spread the word that smaller groups can book a private showing at the Planetarium, with programs being geared specifically to the material that they may be learning in school or are studying in some other fashion. “It could be a school group, a church group, seniors, Scouts…any private group that wants to come and speak with Raj, who can gear a show that deals with age-specific and subject-specific materials. We’re so fortunate to have this right in our backyard; and they only request $2 per person, which goes to the SUNY-New Paltz Foundation.”

Dr. Forestall tried to clarify one “confusion” that she often encounters, and that is the difference between a planetarium and an observatory. “The Planetarium is an indoor facility in which star images are projected onto a domed ceiling,” she explained. “The Planetarium shows vary, but will usually contain information about what stars are visible that night, some mythology about the constellations and an item of current interest in astronomy. The Observatory is an outdoor facility that houses telescopes used to view objects in the night sky. We will look at stars, planets, star clusters, nebulae and galaxies. If it is cloudy or raining, then we are not able to use the telescopes. Visitors should remember to dress appropriately to be outside.”

To get a fresh and more educated look at the night sky, come out to Astronomy Night each first and third Thursday of the month. To learn more, or find out when the shows start, when a second show is being added, what the subject matter is, log onto www.newpaltz.edu/planetarium/about.html and/or www.newpaltz.edu/observatory. ++