New Milford observatory 'charting new territory' as 20th anniversary approaches

NEW MILFORD — It all began with one man, a telescope and a dream.

Resident Monty Robson began sharing his love of astronomy with the greater community more than 20 years ago. The purpose: To help spread the excitement of science and gauge the public’s interest in the possibility of building a state-of-the art observatory in town.

It has been two decades since his dream came true. The John J. McCarthy Observatory, on the campus of New Milford High School, will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a special virtual program Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. via Facebook Live and at www.mccarthyobservatory.org.

The program is part of the observatory’s Second Saturday Stars series, which is held the second Saturday of each month at the internationally recognized observatory. Since the pandemic began, however, the event has shifted to a virtual experience.

“It’s really special,” Elaine Green, who joined the all-volunteer staff observatory team 15 years ago, said of the observatory and the individuals who volunteer their time to operate the facility. “... When I look at all of us, we all come from different backgrounds. I’ve never seen a team come together with such diverse skill sets and operate like a little machine.”

Fellow volunteer Bill Cloutier, who is among a small group of individuals who joined Robson in getting the nonprofit observatory off the ground, agreed with Green. “We operate almost seamlessly.”

“This whole project wouldn’t have been possible without (Monty),” said Cloutier. “He’s a real Renaissance man. There’s nothing he can’t figure out, or do, or invent.”

For the past 20 years, the observatory has served as a research and educational facility for the public, businesses, students and others.

Thousands of visitors from near and far have looked through the observatory’s telescopes and attended various programs since the observatory opened its doors to the public.

More Information

See page S10 for a timeline of observatory history and highlights.

“This has gone way beyond my expectations,” said volunteer Bob Lambert, who met Robson in April 1998.

He cited the quality and quantity of “dedicated volunteers,” the visits by community members and the award-winning student projects that have been accomplished through the observatory as rewarding.

“The important thing is we keep engaging (individuals) with science,” Lambert said. “It’s always been our vision to spotlight science literacy.”

Ken Mastro and his son, Cavan, 9, have attended a family-themed observatory adult education course multiple times since Cavan was in first grade because he adores space. They’ve also participated in many Second Saturday Stars programs, including the recent virtual ones.

“He always had a great time and we learned a lot,” Mastro said. “... We are blessed to live in a town that has an observatory, and they’re on the forefront of so many things.”

Astronomical successes

One of the observatory’s latest projects is its partnership with the Westport Astronomical Society. Together, they are starting up the New England Fireball Network, which will monitor the night sky to observe meteors.

“We’re charting new territory right now with our meteor network,” Robson said, despite the pandemic.

Cameras in New Milford and Wesport operate all night long, taking continuous images. Special software will tag images if a meteor appears. The information will help astronomers “determine the atmosphere trajectory of the object and where it might’ve landed and then if it was big enough to drop meteorites,” Robson explained. “Then we can be there pretty quick and see if we can recover something. We can also know where it came from and then plot its orbit.”

Observatory staff have successfully photographed unique astronomical finds and correctly identified an assortment of celestial happenings through its telescopes and cameras.

Robson photographed an asteroid called 2008 TC less than 24 hours after it was discovered and just 75 minutes before it exploded over the Sudan, and had his work on the Weston Meteorite fall published in Meteoritics & Planetary Science.

Since then, more than 2,000 highly-accurate observations “of near-Earth object orbits and the likelihood of future encounters” have been contributed by observatory staff since then, Cloutier said.

The observatory’s main telescope, a 16-inch reflector telescope with a 0.4-meter aperture, is under a retractable dome. It operates with a clock drive, turning at the same rate to the west as the Earth moves to the east, meaning an object viewed with stay in a field of view.

Robson said several other telescopes and a “smaller astrograph,” which is a refractor, are also available at the site. In total, five key piece of viewing equipment are on hand.

Community outreach

Early on, the observatory began to expand its outreach into the community, offering student projects, public programs, adult ed courses and more.

Students have played an active role in the facility’s happenings and astronomical achievements. Among the most successful is Lisa Glukhovksy, who in 2003 won a top award for high schoolers at the annual Intel International Science and Engineering fair for her work devising a fast, accurate method to measure the distance between Earth and asteroids.

Local teachers have played an integral role in the observatory’s mission, too, inviting staff into classrooms for special programs and arranging for field trips to the observatory. Scouts and other groups have also been drawn to the local facility.

“What the observatory has done — to be internationally recognized — there’s so much that just impresses me, and I’m just thrilled,” said Green, who is co-coordinator of outreach with Parker Moreland.

Green learned of the observatory during an adult ed course in 2005. “I joined (the team) because they blew my mind.”

The excitement extends to community members who attend the observatory star parties, viewings of special events, such as meteor storms, and solar and lunar eclipses.

Mayor Pete Bass reflected on the observatory’s history and recalled his visits to the facility with his daughters for the Saturday night programs.

“We would hear about and see the moon and planets, and learn about NASA, and that would bring excitement to my daughters, as well as myself,” he said. “... New Milford is fortunate to have an observatory in our community.”

Sarah Noble Intermediate School gifted and talented teacher Susan Brofford described the observatory as “a rare gem in the New Milford community.”

She praised the observatory volunteers for designing and building the planetarium at SNIS, and for keeping it in working order.

“When I first started at SNIS, they came in and trained me on how to use all the equipment and shared valuable information that allowed me to share this resources with students,” she said.

The facility is accessible to all, with an elevator, a ramp to the outside sky deck and accessories to meet the needs of the visually, hearing, learning and motion impaired. For more information about the observatory, visit mccarthyobservatory.org.