The Burlington County Parks System partnered with the West Jersey Astronomical Society (WAS) to host an evening of stargazing at Smithville Historic Park earlier this month.
According to member Gary Weinstein, the society – originally known as the Willingboro Astronomical Society – was started by a group of high-school students interested in rocketry.
“It was basically a rocket club that branched into astronomy-related subjects,” Weinstein said.
Now in its 56th year, WAS meets the first and third Friday of each month at the Virtua Health and Wellness Center in Moorestown. The 7:30 p.m. meetings are casual, interactive and free, and members discuss everything from observations to basic astronomy and equipment while sharing astro-photos.
No previous knowledge of astronomy is required, and all are welcome. Star watch assistant Joe Stieber has been a member of WAS for years, but has loved astronomy since he was 10.
“I got seriously interested in astronomy in the 1990s,” Stieber recalled. “(That’s when) I actually bought my first real telescope.”
Other members of WAS are knowledgeable in areas such as basic astronomy, observing techniques, deep-sky objects and astrophotography. According to its website, the astronomical society serves both the public and amateur astronomers of the Delaware Valley.
The WAS is now in its second year of holding public star watching events at the county’s parks, but also hosts observing sessions at Batsto Village in the south-central Pinelands.
“On a good night in the summertime you get a beautiful (view) of the Milky Way,” Stieber said of watching the sky at Batsto Village. “Most people don’t even know what the Milky Way looks like … On a moon-free night in Batsto, it’s like a cloud going across.”
Stieber advises people interested in star watching to keep their viewing area as dark as possible, save for a red flashlight, if needed.
“Leave the flashlights off, get adapted to the dark and you’ll see fine,” he explained. “When you read your charts or your books, get a little red flashlight so you can illuminate them.”
Weinstein shared how telescopes come in two basic types – reflectors and refractors – each of which has its own variations.
“A reflector uses a mirror, and a refractor is the kind you see that are sold to kids at Christmas time,” he noted. “ … Some scopes will reverse the image, some will reverse and flip the image, so you have to get used to what kind of scope you’re using.”
Much like Stieber, Weinstein has always been interested in astronomy and is a longtime member of WAS. He hopes his organization and others continue to thrive and see new members.
“We need more people to join clubs and keep it going, because science is important,” he pointed out. “Otherwise where would we be without it?”
For more information on WAS and how to become a member, visit https://www.wasociety.us.