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For amateur astronomers, 'star parties' are the antidote to light-polluted skies

An amateur astronomer points in the direction of a celestial object under exceptionally dark skies at Cherry Springs State Park in northern Pennsylvania earlier this month.
Wassana Laisukang
An amateur astronomer points in the direction of a celestial object under exceptionally dark skies at Cherry Springs State Park in northern Pennsylvania earlier this month.

COUDERSPORT, Pa. — Up a winding road that cuts through the Allegheny Plateau, hundreds of amateur astronomers in campers and pickups stream into northern Pennsylvania each spring and summer in search of one thing: stars.

It's something they can't get enough of in the halo of light pollution that surrounds most cities. By contrast, Cherry Springs State Park, located about 135 miles northwest of Wilkes-Barre, is one of the very few truly dark sky sites in the entire eastern United States.

Twice a year, in June and September, park officials and local astronomy clubs team up to host "star parties" that draw people from as far away as Florida and Wisconsin. For these amateur astronomers, there's no replacement for the inky-black skies that reveal what they affectionately refer to as "faint fuzzies" — dim and distant galaxies, star clusters and nebulae.

The weather, however, is always a wild card. Only the third and final night of the June event this year, timed to coincide with the new moon, delivers clear skies. Molly Wakeling is betting that will be enough to capture LDN 1262, a wispy nebula in the constellation Cepheus. She's hoping to photograph it, something that would be impossible from her home in Dayton, Ohio.

Red lamps, used to preserve night vision for observing, are seen on a field at the Cherry Springs Star Party in northern Pennsylvania.
/ Wassana Laisukang
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Wassana Laisukang
Red lamps, used to preserve night vision for observing, are seen on a field at the Cherry Springs Star Party in northern Pennsylvania.

"I do the objects from the dark skies that are hard for me to do from home," Wakeling says. A quick glance at a dark sky map makes clear why western Ohio is such a challenge for her, and why Cherry Springs is so inviting, even if it means waiting out clouds and rain.

Digital cameras have changed the game

Wakeling is part of a growing trend among amateur stargazers. Traditionally, "visual astronomers" have simply looked through an eyepiece to view objects that are often thousands — or even millions — of light-years away. In recent years, however, sensitive digital cameras have brought amateur astrophotography into its own. Long and multiple exposures collect much more light than the human eye and can then be "stacked" to assemble extraordinary images, as evidenced by Wakeling's online gallery.

Eric Roth, a past president of the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg, which organizes the annual star party, says 550 people registered for this year's event, with another 400 on a waitlist. That tops the previous record set in 2022. He says the switch from visual astronomy to astrophotography is "a big-time change" that seems to have really taken off around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Roth considers himself an old-school, through-the-eyepiece "strictly visual astronomer." But today "it seems like everybody is going now for astrophotography."

He doesn't think that is a bad thing. It's helping pass the amateur astronomy baton to a new generation. "We're skewing younger than we used to, which is good," Roth says. He surmises that it's because the gadgetry of astrophotography appeals more to a younger demographic.

Amateur astronomer Molly Wakeling sets up her telescope and camera equipment to capture an especially faint nebula at the Cherry Springs Star Party in northern Pennsylvania.
/ Scott Neuman/NPR
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Scott Neuman/NPR
Amateur astronomer Molly Wakeling sets up her telescope and camera equipment to capture an especially faint nebula at the Cherry Springs Star Party in northern Pennsylvania.

Trinna Cuellar, 41, lives in New Jersey and has also recently gotten into astrophotography. She talks about her telescope gear the way some people talk about a prized sports car — citing specs and rattling off lingo.

Cuellar has brought her son, Lev, who is almost 11, to Cherry Springs so he can get his first glimpse of "the galaxy we live in" — the Milky Way, she says.

She was first at Cherry Springs as a child and credits the experience with sparking her interest in astronomy. "My first time here, I think I was 7 or 8 years old," she says. "We came to see the stars, and I was just blown away."

A few years ago, at the start of the pandemic, she took the leap into astrophotography.

Skip Bird, a retired science teacher, stands next to his telescope last week at Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania.
/ Scott Neuman/NPR
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Scott Neuman/NPR
Skip Bird, a retired science teacher, stands next to his telescope last week at Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania.

"I love the creative freedom," Cuellar says. "There's a lot of flexibility in how you put together that final image."

"I can actually create something that kind of resembles a Hubble image," she says, referencing NASA's famed Hubble Space Telescope.

An escape from light pollution

While the dark skies of Cherry Springs benefit all amateur astronomers, with filters and other workarounds, astrophotographers can mitigate some of the light pollution issues they experience at home. For visual astronomers such as 69-year-old Wayne Petko, though, dark skies are a must.

That's why he's been coming to Cherry Springs from his home in New Jersey for the past quarter-century — and not just for star parties but for new moons throughout the summer, when there's usually 50 to 100 other enthusiasts on the observing field with him, he says.

Wayne Petko, who lives in New Jersey, has been coming to observe under the exceptionally dark skies at Cherry Springs for a quarter-century.
/ Scott Neuman/NPR
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Scott Neuman/NPR
Wayne Petko, who lives in New Jersey, has been coming to observe under the exceptionally dark skies at Cherry Springs for a quarter-century.

Petko belongs to the New Jersey Astronomical Association, whose observatory is at a state park situated west of New York City and about 40 miles north of Trenton, where "there's been a gradual upswing in light pollution."

In fact, Petko's observation about an upsurge in light pollution is backed by data. A study published earlier this year in the journal Science indicates that on average, the night sky has gotten nearly 10% brighter each year from 2011 to 2022.

That would probably come as no surprise to Stephen Alba, who lives "15 minutes from Newark Airport," where the stars are hidden by a hazy glow. He, his wife and young son arrived at the Cherry Springs party without a truck full of complicated astronomy gear — just a simple pair of binoculars.

"We want to see the Milky Way," Alba says, smiling. "We're just here to experience it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.