Monday, February 27, 2012

Voorhees, the final frontier....

Quick! Who was the first New Jerseyan in space? And who was the first state native to set foot on the moon? I'll give you two hints: they're not the same person, and they're honored somehow in Voorhees State Park.

A road marker brought Ivan and me to discover this previously unknown (at least to us) gem. You might have noticed one yourself on Route 78 or Route 22: a brown sign that enigmatically says "NJAA Observatory," with no other explanation. The traveler is left to wonder what NJAA is, and what they're observing. New Jersey Automobile Association, watching traffic? New Jersey Alcoholics Anonymous, keeping members on the path to sobriety? This time we decided to take the detour and find out.

A little blurry -- perhaps the state's largest publicly-available
telescope would have put it into sharper focus.
Another sign on County Route 513 brings you into Voorhees State Park, through deep woods and to higher elevation. Surprisingly, Ivan didn't want to stop to do any birding, having had poor luck there in the past. We continued driving until we reached a sign stating "Paul Robinson Observatory/Home of the New Jersey Astronomical Assn."

Why hadn't we considered an actual space observatory as a possibility? It makes some sense: altitude, distance from the light pollution of heavily-populated areas, and surrounding land that likely will never be developed. The skies aren't as reliably clear as those at Mauna Kea in Hawaii, but then the average observer doesn't have to worry about sudden bouts of hypoxia, either.

The observatory was conceived in 1965 by a group of seven men who wanted to share the science of astronomy with others. Led by Paul Robinson, they eventually were able to lease land from the state, build the facility and obtain a 26 inch diameter mirror telescope from Indiana University. The larger of two buildings is named for Montclair native Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, who was the second human (and first New Jerseyan) to set foot on the moon. A smaller adjacent observatory building is named for Hackensack-born Wally Schirra, who was the fifth American (first New Jerseyan) in space and the first human to make three trips into space.

Unfortunately the place was closed when we stopped by -- they don't have winter hours until the last weekend of February, probably because the road wouldn't be that reliable after snow and ice storms. If you visit when they're not open, you can still check out the outdoor virtual solar system, which includes wayside signs describing each planet of our solar system, sited in proportion to their true spatial relationship to one another. We wondered if Pluto was still part of the exhibit, given its demotion from planet status, but decided it was unlikely anyone had ever walked out that far to see the sign, anyway.

The observatory is on our ever growing list of things to return to, once it's open again. Check out the NJAA website for operating days and hours, plus a full schedule of lectures and events.

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