If New Yorkers wander into Central Park around East 99th Street off Fifth Avenue on Saturday night, they could see the East Meadow filled with a sea of red lights and telescopes pointing up.
It’s the 28th annual Autumn Starfest, a cosmic celebration with guided viewings of the evening’s celestial sights. It’s also an opportunity to learn about current NASA programs.
The free event is the biggest party of the year for the Amateur Astronomers Association (AAA), held in partnership with the New York City Parks Department. More than a dozen telescopes will be pointed into outer space for glimpses of visible planets such as Mars and Jupiter — and stars such as the blue and gold double star Albireo and the Hercules globular cluster, glittering colorfully with more than 100,000 stars. Organizers expect up to 2,000 people to attend.
“Starfest is both for our members to have one big star party and for the public to come learn about us, about astronomy,” said Bart Fried, AAA executive vice president.
This year’s Starfest was originally scheduled for Oct. 1 — but was postponed due to rain. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, was slated to emcee while live-taping his podcast Startalk.
But Dr. Tyson was not available to host the makeup date. The new guest speaker is Dr. Joe Patterson, an astronomy professor at Columbia University. He will talk about exploding stars, also known as supernovas, and his personal journey to becoming an astronomer.
“Star parties, if the sky is clear, are always a winner,” Patterson said.
Current weather predictions call for rain early on Saturday due to the remnants of Hurricane Nicole, but the skies are then expected to clear by the time the festivities begin.
The first Autumn Starfest, hosted by Dr. Tyson, was inspired by a public gathering in the park to watch Comet Shoemaker-Levy slam into Jupiter in July 1994. It was planned by Urban Park Ranger Keith Rowan and former AAA president Michael O’Gara, in association with the College of Staten Island’s astronomy program.
Current weather predictions call for rain early on Saturday due to the remnants of Hurricane Nicole, but the skies are then expected to clear by the time the festivities begin. The event will continue even if it’s partially cloudy.
“I’m definitely looking forward to seeing Mars because Mars is very close to the earth now,” Patterson said. “Mars is a really difficult planet to observe, and you really only get a good look at it when it gets close to the Earth, so I’m looking forward to that through one of the AAA’s telescopes.”
Another headliner will be the moon, which will be 85% illuminated — a waning gibbous following the total lunar eclipse earlier this week. Through a telescope, shadows enhance the cratered landscape, making it easier to distinguish the rough lunar surface.
“New York City is a place where people automatically think you can’t see stars, you can’t see planets, you can’t see anything,” said Kat Troche, AAA vice president of operations, who first learned about Starfest when she stumbled upon it walking through Central park in 2010. “It’s challenging, but you can see things in New York City.
Part of AAA’s mission is to educate the public. That evening gives the group a chance to update the public on NASA programs such as the Artemis lunar mission and the James Webb Space Telescope — as well as talk about what can be observed in New York City skies.
“For the public in general, if they just see the moon, they’re usually ecstatic,” Fried said. “Then if they see Saturn’s rings or Jupiter and its moons and its bands, hell, sometimes they’re moved to tears.”
The free event runs from 5:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 12.