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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 9, 2011

Dudley Observatory coming to Knox and Albany

By Zach Simeone

KNOX — The Dudley Observatory of Schenectady has acquired a piece of land in Knox to take advantage of the dark skies in the Hilltowns and the view of outer space, uninhibited by nearby light sources. Dudley is also looking to purchase property along Washington Park in Albany to site its historic telescope for use by the public, along with its library, and exhibit space.

Daniel Driscoll of the Knox Planning Board said this week that, regardless of what the Dudley Observatory brings to Knox, the planning board is discussing an amendment to the town’s zoning law to require full-cutoff lighting fixtures in all new construction, maintaining the darkness of the night sky in town.

When Russell Pokorny, assessor for Knox, and his wife, Amy, found out that Dudley was looking for land in the area, they decided to donate part of their property, “Because we’re really interested in such a project,” Russell Pokorny said.

“I’ve been interested in astronomy forever,” he went on, “and, in the process of trying to earn a living and so on, I haven’t gotten around to pursuing it, but I’ve owned a few telescopes over the years, and we have 65 acres up here. So, if we cut off 10 acres and donated that to Dudley Observatory, it wouldn’t make much of an impact on our land.”

The Dudley Observatory, a not-for-profit organization based in Schenectady that supports astronomical research and education, had been looking at the Helderberg escarpment as one of several potential sites for its new observatory. The aim of this site would be to bring people to the area to learn about and look out into space.

Chartered in 1852, Dudley has been without an actual observatory since the 1960s, though it continues to educate middle- and high-school students through its Rising Star internship program, and with star parties, like the one last weekend in the Hilltowns. The Pokornys welcomed the Dudley Observatory and community members to the donated piece of property last Saturday. Participants learned about the history of Dudley Observatory, and later took advantage of the view of the stars once the sun went down.

“It was great,” said Janie Schwab, executive director for the Dudley Observatory. “The weather cleared up and there were a lot of people there…Eventually, there were some clouds in the west obscuring the moon. But, as the night progressed, things got better and better till it was totally clear. So we did some observing till about midnight.”

The Pokornys have been brainstorming potential uses for a new facility on their property — should Dudley decide to build one — other than building a telescope.

“We’re thinking of putting in a scale model of the solar system,” Pokorny said with excitement in his voice. “We’ll have a path that’ll actually be a total of almost 1,800 feet long, because that’s the border of the 10-acre property. The sun would be at one end of it, with all the planets in line, and, at a scale of 11-billion-to-one, you’d have Pluto about 1,755 feet away — almost the full 1,800 feet. It really kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?”

The distances from the sun to the planets would be averaged, he said, as the distances vary throughout the year depending on their point in orbit.

“Pluto actually comes within Neptune’s orbit,” said Pokorny, adding with a laugh, “We’re putting Pluto up there, even though it got knocked off the list recently.”

But Schwab said that constructing a new facility on the property in Knox may not be too close on the horizon, because of its location, and the costs associated with building such a facility.

“We were looking for a site for a new observatory that would be relatively dark and urban, and it’s hard to find something that fits both, that’s easily accessible for city kids, but dark enough to pick out constellations,” Schwab said.

Of the Pokornys’ property, she went on, “It’s high, and it’s dark. Those are the good parts about it. And there’s a building there, so there’s a place to do a program, and a place to go in if you’re cold, so that’s really nice.”

But as a center for bringing in the public to use a telescope, Schwab said, “We would not have chosen a place that was out so far. But, at this point, we are trying to buy a house, a mansion on Washington Park in Albany. So, we have an offer accepted on that, and we’re waiting on an inspection. That would have the library, archives, office, meeting space, exhibit space, and we would hope to put the historic telescope in the park.”

Dudley’s first priority is creating a situation wherein the public can use its current equipment to get a view of space.

“And Knox is farther than we were going to go for our new home,” said Schwab. “A telescope is going to need to be protected in some way, you know, security. So, just plopping one in the middle of nowhere is asking for trouble, and we were not planning on building a facility up there anytime in the foreseeable future.”

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