BY NICOLE JAVORSKY | While Amateur Astronomers Association of New York member Carey Horwitz adjusts the telescope to my short stature, he explained that this astronomy club looks mostly at double stars and planets. They’re limited by the pollution in New York City, he noted. Within minutes of arriving at the weekly stargazing event at the High Line, I realized how little I know about astronomy.
Yet, just a few moments later, I was looking at Jupiter through the eyepiece of one of the seven high-powered telescopes set up along the W. 14th St. portion of Chelsea’s elevated park.
Faissal Halim, another member of the Amateur Astronomers Association (AAA), helped me figure out how to use the telescope, by pointing the contraption at a building to start me off. It still took me a few tries to see anything, but thankfully Halim remained patient.
Several times a week, at various locations in New York — including the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, Central Park, and Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza — AAA members like Horwitz and Halim point their telescopes at planets and stars, and give passersby a hands-on chance to ponder our place in the universe. Every Tuesday night, April through October, the AAA holds observation sessions on the High Line. They also present free monthly lectures at the Museum of Natural History from October to May, in addition to offering classes in astronomy and astrophysics (earlier this year, they held a class on the basics of astronomy, as well as a night sky photography workshop).
Horwitz and Halim are two of over 700 members in this astronomy club that has been active since 1927. Members do their own observing — but as the lectures and classes show, they often opt to share their love of astronomy with the public.
An AAA member for the past decade, Horwitz became interested in stargazing when, as a child, the things he was able to see through a small telescope captured his imagination. This interest, though, ceased once he entered adulthood. Then, he recalled, “About 20 years ago, I thought I’d try it again.”
Unlike Horwitz, I never played with a toy telescope as a kid (though as a native New Yorker, I probably wouldn’t have seen much through a toy telescope anyway). I used this as my excuse for having no idea what to do, when looking through one of the AAA’s telescopes. A white speck against a black background was, at first, all I could see.
“It’s small. After all, it [Jupiter] is about 400 miles away,” Horwitz told me.
He showed me how to adjust the focus and, suddenly, I could see Jupiter. Several others soon lined up behind me to see the planet, with still more people scattered around to decide which part of the universe they wanted to get a glimpse of first.
The event seemed to bring out all ages and ranges of experience. I overheard a young couple remark that they were visiting from New Zealand. Close by, Horwitz discussed the AAA’s various programs with an older group of people. There were many families with young children (true to the path of discovery Horwitz followed, kids seem to be natural stargazers).
At another telescope set up across from me, a family took turns looking through the eyepiece. The father lifted up his young daughter to the eyepiece of the telescope so she could also get the chance to see what’s beyond our planet Earth.
Meanwhile, I overheard another child asking Halim, “Can I see a planet too?”
Amidst observing the stargazers, I suddenly noticed a man walking toward us, slowly, and in silence. With a white lantern fashioned over his face (like an astronaut helmet, it seemed to me), the man made his way toward the telescopes at a snail’s pace. Several people near me laughed, and I caught the scene with my camera.
Though the strange man ended up being part of a separate performance I passed by later that night, the incident was fitting, considering we were there to view what astronauts see from a different vantage point.
While getting ready to leave, I looked over my shoulder and saw Horwitz at work, adjusting the telescope for another woman around my height. At first, I noticed her struggling to figure out how to use the telescope. It made me feel less alone in my limited knowledge of how telescopes work. Finally, she laughed and said, “Oh, wow.”
With a smile on her face, she walked away. I smiled too, knowing exactly how she felt. For a night dedicated to contemplating the vastness of space and its far-away objects, the experience we shared left me feeling more connected than ever before.
The Amateur Astronomers Association holds stargazing at The Diller-von Furstenberg Sundeck, on the High Line at W. 14th St., Tuesdays through Oct. 25, from dusk to 30 minutes before the park closes. More information on their lectures, classes and other stargazing sites can be found at aaa.org. Also visit thehighline.org/activities/stargazing.