Each spring and summer, hundreds of amateur astronomers in campers and pickups drive up a steep Allegheny Plateau road to northern Pennsylvania to see stars.
In most cities’ light pollution halo, they crave it. Cherry Springs State Park, 135 miles northwest of Wilkes-Barre, is one of the few eastern US dark sky spots.
Park authorities and local astronomy groups conduct “star parties” in June and September, drawing visitors from Florida and Wisconsin. The inky-black sky that display “faint fuzzies”—dim and distant galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae—are irreplaceable for these amateur astronomers.
Weather is unpredictable. This year, only the third and final night of the June event, which coincides with the new moon, had bright sky. Molly Wakeling hopes that will be enough to photograph LDN 1262, a Cepheus nebula. She wants to photograph it, which is difficult from Dayton, Ohio.
“I do the objects from the dark skies that are hard for me to do at home,” Wakeling explains. A dark sky map shows why western Ohio is difficult for her and why Cherry Springs is appealing, even if it means waiting out clouds and rain.
Digital cameras revolutionized everything.
Amateur stargazers like Wakeling are proliferating. “Visual astronomers” have used eyepieces to examine objects hundreds or millions of light-years away. Recently, sensitive digital cameras have made amateur astrophotography possible. Wakeling’s web collection shows how long exposures may be “stacked” to create stunning photographs.
The Astronomical Society of Harrisburg’s previous president, Eric Roth, says 550 people registered for this year’s star party, with 400 on a waitlist. That beats the 2022 record. “A big-time change” from visual astronomy to astrophotography began around the COVID-19 epidemic, he says.
Roth is a “strictly visual astronomer.””It seems like everybody is going now for astrophotography,” but today.
He doesn’t mind that. It’s passing the amateur astronomer torch. “We’re skewing younger,” Roth adds. Astrophotography’s gadgetry attracts younger people, he thinks.
New Jersey resident Trinna Cuellar, 41, just started astrophotography. She describes her telescopic gear like a sports car, using specifications and terminology.
Cuellar accompanied her almost-11-year-old son, Lev, to Cherry Springs to see “the galaxy we live in”—the Milky Way.
Cherry Springs originally sparked her interest in astronomy as a youngster. “My first time here, I think I was 7 or 8 years old,” she adds. “We came to see the stars, and I was just blown away.”
She started astrophotography during the epidemic.
“I love the creative freedom,” Cuellar explains. “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 adds of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
Astrophotographers can reduce light pollution with filters and other solutions at Cherry Springs. Visual astronomers like 69-year-old Wayne Petko need dark sky.
He’s been traveling to Cherry Springs from New Jersey for 25 years, not just for star parties but also for summer new moons, when 50 to 100 other fans are on the viewing field.
Petko belongs to the New Jersey Astronomical Association, whose observatory is at a state park west of New York City and 40 miles north of Trenton, where “there’s been a gradual upswing in light pollution.”
Data supports Petko’s finding of light pollution rising. Science reported earlier this year that the night sky has brightened about 10% every year from 2011 through 2022.
Stephen Alba lives “15 minutes from Newark Airport,” where the stars are obscured by haze. He brought a set of binoculars to the Cherry Springs party with his wife and children.
“We want to see the Milky Way,” Alba smiles. “We’re just here to experience it.”