Star Gazing in Maine
Much of Maine is lightly populated, making it the perfect venue to do a bit of stargazing. Find a secluded spot, perhaps in or near Acadia National Park, along the coast or deep within the interior and just look up. The lack of man-made light makes it possible to see millions of stars, including the lace-like finger of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Bring along a telescope and you’ll delve even farther into the depths of space.
Aurora Borealis – Maine’s Colorful Sky Show
The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are usually a phenomenon of the more northerly skies of Arctic Canada and Alaska. In the winter months this light show can sometimes be seen from the northern parts of Maine. The intensity of the lights depends on solar activity. During solar storms more charged particles strike the Earth’s atmosphere, drawn towards the magnetic North and South poles. Sun spots create the most intense storms, allowing the more active aurora to be seen closer to the United States/Canada border.
Parts of Maine are farther north than parts of Quebec and New Brunswick, making the state prime Aurora Borealis territory. Reports of unusual sun spot activity and/or solar flares bring residents and scientists alike to deserted stretches of beach or to the shores of a northern lake. Since these flares can interfere with satellite communications, TV and radio, public announcements are the norm.
Once you’ve found your light-free watching spot, settle in and look north. You might see a faint green cloud tinting the horizon, or a dance of flickering lights fading in and out. The color may also vary, depending on the types of particles hitting the atmosphere. The green is created by oxygen particles. Nitrogen particles produce a reddish-pink. The intensity varies from the soft pastels of a watercolor to the bold deep hues of the richest oil paints. If you can capture the Aurora Borealis on film, you have quite the treasure.
Maine’s Observatories and Astronomy Programs
Scientists got wind of the magnificent night skies above Maine and soon the state was home to a number of observatories and planetariums. The oldest is the Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium (galaxymaine.com) at the University of Maine in Orono. Located near Bangor in the Maine Highlands Region, this family-friendly venue offers free telescope viewing every clear Friday and Saturday night and Star Shows each weekend. Combining music from well known bands like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin with laser light technology, the planetarium also hosts periodic Skylase Laser Shows. The University itself conducts experiments in conjunction with NASA on items such as hypergravity and weightlessness through its Microgravity University Program.
Blueberry Pond Observatory (blueberryobservatory.com) is in Pownal, just north of Bradbury Mountain State Park. The observatory is only a 20 mile drive from Portland yet still in a remote area assuring the best stargazing conditions. Two hour guided tours are offered, including using the observatory’s telescope to peer into the skies. Learn how to take digital pictures of stars, planets, the Moon, or whatever else you happen to discover. At the end of the tour, the printed pictures can go home with you. Advanced sessions are offered for those wanting a more in-depth experience.
The Astronomical Society of Northern New England (asnne.org) operates the Starfield Observatory in Kennebunk. This non-profit group hosts star parties for adults and children and offers presentations, slide shows and telescope observation sessions to schools and other community groups. The all volunteer group opened the observatory in 2001. It has an unusual roll-off roof that allows a panoramic view of the sky, unlike a dome roof that usually opens wide enough to expose the lens.
Located on Dodge Pond Road in Rangeley, the Wilhelm Reich Museum hosts regular Sky Programs in its Conference Center. On clear nights a bank of telescopes is set up for public use. All ages are welcome to take their turn gazing through the lenses. Bring your own binoculars and lawn chair and relax as you turn your eyes towards the moon, stars, a comet or even the Aurora Borealis. Pop inside the center for some cookies and hot chocolate or coffee. The night is young; the stars are bright, why not go out and have another look?
ASTROLab – Lac Megantic, Quebec
Lac Megantic, Quebec is just a few miles past the Canadian border via Route 27 from the town of Eustis and Flagstaff Lake. At Woburn, the roadway connects with Canadian Route 161, leading directly to ASTROLab, a scientific center that combines the science of astronomy with ecology, biology and geology. The center is at the base of Mont Megantic and is co-administrated by the Universite Laval, Universitie McGill and the Universite de Montreal.
During the summer months the observatory is open to the public. Nights are dedicated to scientific research, with one exception. For two nights each July, during the Festival d’astonomie Populaire du Mont-Megantic (Festival of Popular Astronomy at Mont-Megantic) the giant telescope is refitted with an eyepiece to allow visual observation. The public is welcome to take a look and see just how close the stars really are.