June 11, 2015
An experience that’s out of this world
By Brooke Amerantes
Last summer, a few friends and I took the first of many late night trips to the Frosty Drew Nature Center and Observatory in Ninigret Park, Charlestown. Lacking the brightly lit restaurants and shopping plazas that are scattered throughout most of the state, Ninigret Park is recognized as being one of the darkest locations in Rhode Island. While it may sound strange, no matter how many times I’ve been to the park since that first visit I never grow tired of the incredible darkness that cloaks the area. Without the artificial light of the city, the stars illuminate the sky in a way I thought was only possible with the help of Photoshop.
The observatory itself is a tiny cylindrical building lit by a dim red light that contains only a set of steps and a rather impressive telescope. Throughout the night, the telescope changes positions to focus on an assortment of astrological sights including planets, the moon and globular clusters made up of millions of stars. My personal favorite is Saturn, which is best viewed in the early summer months. I’ve seen pictures of the planet in textbooks, but looking through the powerful telescope and seeing its famous rings firsthand was remarkable. Of course, the sky changes depending on the time of year, so the sights that are visible during the summer months are drastically different from what may be visible in winter.
Not only does the observatory provide breathtaking views of our galaxy, it provides an incomparable learning opportunity. Think about it–how often do you get the chance to point to an object in the sky and have a real astronomer explain what that object is and how it was formed? I can’t count the times I’ve asked the question “Is that a planet or just a really bright star?” to my family while on our evening walks. If there were an astronomer with me, I would have all the answers I needed while subsequently saving my family from a game of twenty questions.
One of my favorite learning experiences at the observatory occurred during my most recent visit. Looking at the sky, I noticed a bright object moving incredibly fast. Upon first glance, I thought it was a highflying airplane–or a UFO, perhaps? I was planning my Nobel Prize acceptance speech for discovering alien life when an astronomer explained that I was actually looking at the International Space Station, which was orbiting Earth at a cool 17,150 miles per hour. In fact, the space station moved so incredibly fast that it flew overhead twice during the two hours I was in the park. After seeing it in person–albeit from hundreds of miles away–it was incredible to think that there are real astronauts living inside of it.
While spending a Friday night learning about outer space may not be the first thing that comes to mind when planning a weekend’s worth of activities, there’s something very comforting about setting aside a busy schedule to spend a few hours gazing at the stars. The Frosty Drew Observatory is one of my favorite places to visit, and I’m always left awestricken by the beauty of the constellations and the immense size of our universe.
Frosty Drew Nature Center and Observatory, 61 Park Ln., Charlestown, 401-364-9508, frostydrew.org