There is a boat ramp out in Orient where serious stargazers can catch a glimpse of the Milky Way in the night sky, said Ken Spencer, president of the Astronomical Society of Long Island. Accessing it requires driving down a narrow, two-lane road in the dark, which Spencer can only describe as "creepy."

But once you arrive, it's a beautiful view — because this remote spot is devoid of the light pollution causing many observers on Long Island to pack up their telescopes and drive to the East End, upstate and even Pennsylvania, in search of darker skies.

"The big problem all over Long Island, certainly for Nassau and western Suffolk, is light pollution," said Spencer, 81, of Sea Cliff. "People are using way too much light."

Despite this, Long Islanders have constructed setups in their backyards to get a closer look at starry nights and certain planets at nightfall. With some visibility of the night sky and a flat surface to place your equipment, many Long Islanders have been successful with stargazing from their own homes.

Get a view of the sky

Drag the sky around to see what the stars look like over Long Island right now, depending on the direction. While we only see the sun with the naked eye during the day, planets are still scattered around the skies.

For stargazing, "the East End of Long Island will knock your socks off," Spencer said. "But in my backyard, you'd think, why bother to look at that?"

Stargazing equipment can cost up to $3,000, depending on the size and type of the telescope and accessories included, and can go into the $5,000 range for astrophotography supplies.

And the hobby requires research to understand exactly what you're looking at. In fact, the learning never really stops, local astronomy enthusiasts say, which is part of the fun.

But for beginners, all you have to do is look up.

Stars of Long Island

Ken Spencer has photographed celestial sites from around Long Island. Credit: Ken Spencer

Light pollution is a consistent problem on Long Island, said Jason Cousins, president of the Amateur Observers' Society of New York. And it can happen in your own neighborhood when, say, someone leaves string lights along their fence illuminated all night.

"But for the most part, you can still go to the South Shore," Cousins said. "The skies are still relatively dark, and you can still see the Milky Way."

Some locations that are best for stargazing include Robert Moses State Park, Montauk and the Custer Institute in Southold, home to Long Island's oldest public observatory, Cousins said.

To observe and to be able to park after sunset in some of these areas, you'll need to obtain a New York State Stargazing Permit, which costs $35 for residents. The permit is only sold at certain points throughout the year (it cannot be purchased from April 1 through Labor Day).

But some properties on the market have stargazing opportunities built in, and real estate agents use them as a selling point in their listing descriptions.

This $4 million Port Jefferson home has a built-in setup...

This $4 million Port Jefferson home has a built-in setup to stargaze. Credit: Eric Micallef

Janet Bidwell is an agent with Douglas Elliman Real Estate. She has a listing in Mattituck for just under $1 million that includes a second-floor deck, offering panoramic views of a nearby creek and the vast sky.

"It's off the primary bedroom upstairs," she said. "It's not a huge deck, but big enough for a few chairs, a table and a telescope."

Bidwell, an astronomy enthusiast herself, feels that there has been an increased interest in stargazing on the North Fork recently. But the hobby requires some commitment, she noted.

"Observing involves basically standing in the freezing weather, because the best time to observe is the winter, since the sky is clearer," she said. "Many people can't handle standing in the cold for hours, looking at the stars."

The house overlooks the water in Port Jefferson and has...

The house overlooks the water in Port Jefferson and has a built-in observatory. Credit: Eric Micallef

Michael Omedes, owner-broker at Michael Alexander Properties, is listing a property in Port Jefferson with a possible solution: An indoor observatory. Built in 1900, the 13,000-square-foot estate has a widow's walk. It's topped by 360 degrees of dome-shaped glass.

"That's the most original room left in the house," Omedes said. The property is listed for just under $4 million. "They've upgraded the windows, but that's the original wood, which is from a ship."

Not only is it perfect for stargazing, but the room also offers views of ferries coming in and out of the harbor. An indoor space like this would be hard to find or replicate today, due to code restrictions on building up into a third floor, especially in historic communities or private villages, Omedes said.

"A lot of historic homes with these unique features were grandfathered in to what would otherwise be prohibited architecture," he said. "So this room would be very difficult to re-create in a modern build."

Despite light pollution and challenges of the elements and environment, astrophotography is still possible with the use of filters, Cousins said. Stargazing, though, has become tougher.

"The visual, observing side is taking a hit," he said. "Luckily we have the moon, and the moon is always bright. And Saturn and Jupiter are always good planets to look at."

Even without an indoor observatory or an elevated deck, there are still ways to discover the galaxy right in your backyard. 

Backyard observing

Don Simon stargazes and snaps photographs of space from his South Huntington backyard. Credit: Rick Kopstein

I'm very envious of people who have their own observatories, but that's more of a lottery purchase and not for the house I'm currently in.

— Don Simon

Don Simon scrolled through his iPad in his backyard on a recent spring afternoon, shielding the screen from the sun to reveal a photo he took: A cluster of twinkling stars, bathed in a staggering red-and-white outline.

Simon, 64, doesn't call himself an expert — he's been experimenting with astrophotography for about a year. But from his South Huntington backyard, he's captured galaxies, nebulas and planets across the night sky. His interest in astronomy dates to his days growing up in West Islip; the high school has its own planetarium.

"I remember as far back as elementary school, doing field trips there," said Simon, a retired chief operating officer of a financial service company in Connecticut. "So subliminally, perhaps that's what planted the seed. Then probably 25 years ago, I really got into it by buying my first telescope."

Simon now has three telescopes: One for observing (stargazing), one for imaging (astrophotography) and a smaller, portable one that he can bring with him on the road.

He purchased his primary telescope for observing in 2020, along with three starter lenses and a mount, for about $3,000. His imaging setup came a year and a half later, totaling $5,000 — that included a gently used telescope, camera, mount and a set of filters. Those can be used to balance out light pollution, bring out the blues in the sky and more.

"As long as my brain is still working, this is the kind of hobby that I can continue to learn from," Simon said. "I can always explore what's out there. That's the aspect of this that I really like."

Simon has developed a rhythm for imaging, which involves a camera connected to his telescope. He'll carefully check the weather forecast several days in a row to determine the best time to capture the sky overnight. Then he uses software to see what might be visible in his region during that time.

Through Wi-Fi, a transmitter on the side of the telescope connects to Simon's iPad, and he can control where the telescope goes. Then he collects the images it captures throughout the night on a flash drive plugged into the transmitter.

Simon's yard is surrounded by trees, but he's able to get a pretty clear shot of the sky from his deck. Sometimes he'll even set up the equipment on the cement by his in-ground pool.

Don Simon photographed the Rosette Nebula from his backyard. Credit: Don Simon

It's more unusual nowadays, Spencer said, but serious stargazers could construct observatories in their backyards: 8-by-6-foot dome-shaped structures with a shutter that opens and closes for the telescope inside. This would also protect equipment from the elements.

"I'm very envious of people who have their own observatories, but that's more of a lottery purchase and not for the house I'm currently in," Simon said with a laugh. "I couldn't make it work if I wanted to."

But he prefers his own setup anyway. Since he has a narrow backyard with some tree cover, having a stationary stargazing spot wouldn't allow him to move around his equipment when necessary to get a better angle toward the sky.

"I have a very good view of the north and northwest," he said. "Most of the time if I want to do long-term imaging overnight, I'll find something that is rising there, and it can go all night long. I also have maybe a two-hour window in the southeast, that drastically differs based on whether there are leaves on the trees in my yard."

Don Simon has three telescopes, one of which is for...

Don Simon has three telescopes, one of which is for astrophotography and captured this image of the Horsehead Nebula. Credit: Don Simon

Joining the Astronomical Society of Long Island changed everything for Simon. They meet almost every Wednesday at the Vanderbilt Planetarium in Centerport, with more than 100 members (a regular membership is $40, and a family membership is $60).

"It expanded my whole interest and knowledge of astronomy," he said. "I made a lot of these purchases as an uninformed buyer, then I got involved in the club and that's been a great gift: To be able to pick their brains and talk to people who do the same thing."

Cousins has his own setup in his backyard in Mineola. His group has about 200 paying members, who meet once a month at Hofstra University from September to June. Individual memberships are $25, while a household membership is $30.

"Long Islanders in general are attracted to astronomy just from the climate of Long Island really being the birthplace of aviation," said Cousins, 58. "With all the companies that were involved with the aeronautical industry, most of the original plane builders were here on Long Island … that sets the tone for why astronomy is so valued here."

Beyond the backyard

Ken Spencer focuses his telescope during a moon watching event...

Ken Spencer focuses his telescope during a moon watching event led by the Astronomical Society of Long Island at Old Westbury Gardens. Credit: Jeff Bachner

When looking to buy your own telescope for some backyard stargazing, it's hard to know where to start given how many different styles are out there — Spencer compares it to buying a bicycle.

One way to get a feel for which one you'd like best: The Amateur Observers' Society of New York lends telescopes to the public.

"Once you find the style that you like and that you're comfortable with, that's half the battle right there," Cousins said.

Costco sells telescopes, he added. And Simon purchased his equipment from a local store: Camera Concepts & Telescope Solutions in Stony Brook.

But, "nine times out of 10, it's more difficult to understand without first understanding the concept, and people get frustrated," Cousins said. "So join the club, and we'll show you how to use it."

The Astronomical Society of Long Island hosts public observing sessions...

The Astronomical Society of Long Island hosts public observing sessions once a month, when guests can look through telescopes belonging to club members. Credit: Jeff Bachner

The Astronomical Society of Long Island hosts public observing sessions once a month, Spencer said, with the June installment held at Old Westbury Gardens. There, guests can stop by and look through telescopes belonging to the club members.

"We' always have a nice turnout," Spencer said. "Usually 30 to 50 people, parents and children."

And beginners can start in their backyards and use something they might already have at home: binoculars.

"If you look up in the sky, you might see a dark spot if you look at it with a naked eye, but with binoculars, you can look at that dark spot and see it has stars in there," Cousins said. "And if you utilize a star atlas, you can start learning about what you're looking at."

For serious observers, money, time and research are necessary to get as much out of this pastime as possible. But connecting to the universe, being unafraid of the dark, and maybe starting to understand the unknown — that's priceless.

"We've had discussions about what we'd do if we won the lottery," Simon said. His answer is simple. "I'd want a good house, on a dark piece of land."

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