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Open-sky nights at the Custer Institute and Observatory

Henry Dierks, 3, of Park Slope, Brooklyn, looks

Henry Dierks, 3, of Park Slope, Brooklyn, looks to the stars at The Custer Institute and Observatory in Southold. (Oct. 23, 2010) Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

"Oh, my God, oh, my God!" squeals 6-year-old Jack Generosa of Cutchogue, after seeing the rings of Jupiter and three of its moons through the 2-foot-wide telescope at the Custer Institute and Observatory in Southold. "Look in that little thing and you'll see," he excitedly tells his sister Grayson, 7, pointing at the eyepiece. "Isn't that so cool?"

That's the type of enthusiasm the institute tends to inspire in those who come to view space through the observatory's megatelescope.

"We hope that visitors come here and appreciate the universe and experience the wonder of unexplained things," says president Donna McCormick. "We also want to satisfy their sense of adventure."

ABOUT THE OBSERVATORY

The institute sprung up in the 1920s, when Charles Elmer and his wife, Mary Custer Elmer, began hosting get-togethers for fellow astronomy enthusiasts in their Cedar Beach home. Today, Custer is the Island's oldest public observatory and has been credited with furthering amateur astronomy in America. Visitors who drop in for public stargazing sessions on Saturday nights also can see research projects in progress and how mapping software is being used to track meteor showers, comets and other space happenings.

WATCHING THE SKY

A steady stream of visitors walked through the observatory's open doors on a Saturday in late October. Most wanted to walk up the two flights of steps to the observatory and view the moon and Jupiter.

"I've had a good interest in astronomy my whole life - it was exciting to be here," says Janet Dell'Acqua, 50, of Center Moriches, after she was taken to a shed behind the domed observatory to view the sky through a telescope that filtered out the clouds.

The not-your-typical Saturday night excursion was initially a tough sell for Dell'Acqua's friend, Theresa Buongiovanni, 44, of Bethpage.

"I wasn't that interested when I came in the door," admits Buongiovanni, a nurse. But she was "impressed," nonetheless, that such a facility is open to the public. "I want to come back," Buongiovanni says.

BEFORE YOU GO

Viewing conditions at Custer change from week to week because of variables both large-scale (the Earth's position in the universe) and small (how cloudy it is in Southold). The "wow" factor of how large a planet or moon will appear in one of the institute's telescopes depends on its orbital path. The institute maintains a schedule of expected meteor showers and lunar eclipses on its website, and visitors are encouraged to call ahead for weather updates before making a trip. But rest assured, observatory director Jeff Katz says, there will be something going on in the nighttime sky.

"There always are planets and their moons, our moon, nebulas, asteroids and comets up there," he says.

CUSTER INSTITUTE AND OBSERVATORY

When | Where: 7 p.m.-midnight Saturdays, 1115 Main Bayview Rd., off Route 25, Southold, 631-765-2626, custerobservatory.org

Admission: $5 suggested donation ($3 children)

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