A participant at a tutorial for the Maine Library Telescope Program holds a copy of the Evening Sky Map on Saturday at Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

CAPE ELIZABETH – Ann and Tom Waecker borrowed a telescope from Thomas Memorial Library last fall, but felt their experience could have been better if they knew more about what to look for, so last weekend, they attended a star-gazing seminar at the library with their sights set on taking out the telescope again.

“When we checked it out last time, it was not cloudy out, but the stars looked fuzzy. But now I know it was because of the jet stream,” said Tom Waecker, a retired engineer. He and his wife were among about a dozen people to attend the talk by astronomer Ron Thompson. “I’ve always been interested in astronomy, but I’ve never really practiced it.”

The seminar was part of the library’s programming around the telescope, one of 65 that can be checked out of 62 Maine libraries. This summer, 12 state parks will join the libraries in teaching visitors how to use a telescope.

Since 2012, the Maine Library Telescope Program has reached 60,000 Mainers, with 9,000 people a year now reserving one of the telescopes, according to Cornerstones of Science in Brunswick, a nonprofit that helped establish the program in Maine and at another 300-some libraries in 26 states.

Ron Thompson, director and treasurer of the Southern Maine Astronomers, uses a television to identify celestial objects viewable through a telescope during a tutorial for the Maine Library Telescope Program on Saturday at Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The libraries purchase the $375 telescopes and entry-level star kits from Cornerstones, which helps connect the libraries with amateur astronomers who volunteer to teach programs, called “star parties.” The nonprofit also adapts the telescopes to make them easier to use for all ages.

The state parks, using a $7,300 Outdoor Heritage Fund grant, will purchase the same telescopes and star kits from Cornerstones. Rangers, naturalists and astronomers will undergo training at University of Maine’s Emera Astronomy Center on how to lead a star-gazing program.

Unlike the Library Telescope Program, however, telescopes at the state parks will not be loaned out for individual use, at least this year, but the star-gazing programs offered at the parks will be similar, said Jocelyn Hubbell, the telescope program coordinator for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

“As we develop the star-gazing audience, I will be adapting the information to provide for several levels of star-gazing,” Hubbell said.

Sarah Post at Cornerstones of Science said the state park program is a great addition to the library program because people who attend a star party at a state park can then check out a telescope from one of the libraries that have them. (The state parks will have the list of libraries on hand.)

Recently, the wonders of space have been in the news more with astronaut Jessica Meir, who grew up in Caribou, becoming part of the first all-female spacewalk last fall and the first Maine woman to walk in space. Also, dark sky designations are being pursued more by parks in remote areas, such as Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

However, the interest in exposing more people to astronomy has more to do with developing a deeper appreciation of nature by the public, said Shawn Laatsch, director of UMaine’s Emera Astronomy Center who will train the park rangers.

“Maine is one of the darkest places east of the Mississippi River. It’s a natural resource we need to protect, just like preserving endangered species,” Laatsch said.

Camden Public Library was one of the first libraries in the program, and the activity there has taken off. The annual star parties draw as many as 50 to 70 people. And two-thirds of the year, the two large telescopes are loaned out, just like books, said librarian Amy Hand.

Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth only has had a telescope for a year, but already it’s been checked out 41 of 52 weeks, said Kyle Neugebauer, the library’s director.

“I know a few patrons who had a long weekend up in northern Maine and took the telescope with them up north where the view of the night sky is even better,” Neugebauer said.

At the library last weekend, an interested group gathered to learn how to read a star chart, identify constellations with the naked eye, and find star clusters and nebulas with the telescope.

The seminar was supposed to involve an outdoor portion, but because of rain (and resulting cloud cover), Thompson used most of two hours to explain how to find celestial objects. The only interactive portion was a quick look through a telescope in the library. Still, the silent group sat transfixed.

After handing out sky maps, he directed the group around the map of the January night sky. He showed them how to find the celestial objects that make up the winter hexagon.

“There’s a lot of neat stuff in it, like Great Orion Nebula,” Thompson said. “It’s beautiful with a pair of binoculars. It blows your mind.”

Ben Warndahl, a Maine College of Art student, went straight up to the desk to reserve the telescope as soon as the talk finished.

“I”m planning to drive up the coast with a friend, where it’s darker. We may even go as far as Acadia,” Warndahl said.

Ann Waecker of Cape Elizabeth learns to use a telescope during a tutorial at Thomas Memorial Library, part of the Maine Library Telescope Program, which has introduced many people to studying the night sky. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Comments are not available on this story.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.