Lake Hopatcong News – Star Party -Justin McCarthy
https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/68324377/fourth-of-july-2023-issue (Pages 10 + 11)
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Venus teased, dancing against infinite darkness as silver light from the rising, yet unseen moon feathered the edges of the clouds shifting across the opening sky. Some of the 20 or so astronomy fans gathered in the courtyard at Hopatcong High School on a chilly June Saturday night and peered into telescopes to frame the fluttering Venus crescent in the tiny circles of their lenses; others held one hand above their eyes to block the glare of security lights that illuminated the building. The bark of a fox broke the silence.
The group gathered to celebrate the first star party of the Hopatcong Observatory Astronomy Club, the dream of Hopatcong resident Justin McCarthy, 23. McCarthy graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology in 2022 and works as a structural engineer for Titan Engineers*.
The party was also a celebration of the observatory that McCarthy built in 2018 for an Eagle Scout project while he was still in high school. The wooden shell, painted in Kelly green, the school’s colors, has a roof that rolls open, walls filled with charts, an array of technology and a telescope trained on Polaris, the North Star.
“The telescope tracks the movement of Polaris,” McCarthy said, while on a smartphone he displayed the crescent image of Venus as seen through the telescope.
Venus shows a crescent face when the sun is between the Earth and Venus, he said.
The club is a registered 501(c)(3) and was established to support the observatory’s operation, upgrade the facility and fund a scholarship program for the high school.
For McCarthy, the observatory melds two key interests: science and engineering and giving back to the community.
Excited by the Apollo moon landings of the 1960s, McCarthy, along with his father, Daniel McCarthy, and his uncle, Glenn Burke, attended the Stellafane Convention in Vermont in 2014.
He returned from the long-running astronomy event and gathering of amateur telescope makers inspired to create his own observatory. He also donated an 8-inch telescope, which was the first telescope used in the Hopatcong facility. “I thought it would be a neat idea,” McCarthy said.
It also filled a need for a new observatory, he said, since Lenape Valley Regional High School had shuttered its facility. The next closest is the Greenwood Observatory at Jenny Jump State Forest in Hope, which is open April to November. The site is operated by the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey. The availability of a local observatory was what brought Dan Duran of Lake Hopatcong to the star party.
Duran, an information technology engineer, said he got hooked on astronomy in 2015 and bought his own telescope. But between the distance to his job out of the lake region and the distance and part-time stature of the Jenny Jump observatory, he was frustrated by the lack of dark spaces to observe the universe. The Hopatcong observatory fits that need, he said, and he became a member of the club.
Duran’s observation is central to McCarthy’s intent: It is not enough to just build something, but that something should have a purpose beyond the thing itself. The observatory is not a project about him, but fills a need he perceived as a lake region kid.
“I was always interested in astronomy,” he said, “but growing up I realized there was a lack of places for kids like to me to explore.”
Thus, the club’s mission: foster an interest in astronomy for the local public; host age-appropriate events for local students; host star parties for the general public; minimize light pollution in the surrounding area; and equip the observatory with new astronomy equipment. And the most far-reaching goal: establish an observatory scholarship for Hopatcong High School students.
The lake region saw McCarthy’s combination of community spirit and engineering skills in 2021 when, as a member of a team of Stevens students, he worked to define the conditions that were needed to return the functionality of the historic fountain at Hopatcong State Park.
The century-old fountain was designed as both a public display and water-leveling device but had deteriorated.
His comments at that time reflect his approach to the observatory: It’s personal. “I used to work at the park and saw how dirty and broken the fountain was,” he said as he took part in the project. “It’s a part of the history here. I’ve seen the old photographs of families enjoying the fountain. It was built along Lakeside Boulevard so the public could enjoy it.”
The fountain is expected to be ready for display at its 100th anniversary in 2024, he said.
Like they did during the Stellafane Convention years earlier, McCarthy’s father and uncle also attended the June star party. Burke, his uncle, brought a homemade telescope, a lightweight spindly framed model that was ready to assemble. Burke and McCarthy’s father offered proud support and admiration, as they had done when the project was in its infancy.
The elder McCarthy, a longtime member of the Lake Hopatcong Commission, sees that spirit of community activism in his son’s observatory. But it’s more.
“We see the photos taken by the large telescopes from space and they are astounding,” he said. “But with this observatory, we can stand here on this tiny spot in the universe and see those stars and planets for our self.”
Christine Munoz, a Hopatcong Middle School science teacher, taught Justin McCarthy. Grinning, she couldn’t contain her sense of pride and joy at his accomplishment.
She said the observatory and events such as the star party will open up the possibility for local students to connect with science and astronomy in more concrete ways.
Munoz said she was looking forward to the day when the observatory and its technology are better integrated into the school’s science classes.
On that June night, while the clouds overhead flittered in and out, McCarthy, ever the task-focused engineer, offered a litany of space objects that might be viewed if the sky opened up, especially the bright moon and satellites.
“Communication and weather satellites travel east to west,” he said. “Spy satellites fly north to south to better observe more of the planet.”
While waiting for clear skies, McCarthy conducted the night’s astronomy lesson onthe terrestrial planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.
“Venus is one of the brightest objects in the sky, but is actually a dull brown when viewed,” he said. “That’s because of the dense cloud cover.”
Mercury can be seen crossing the sun, an event called a transit. Mars is red because of iron. And Earth has weather and well, “it’s home,” he said.
For information about the Hopatcong Observatory Astronomy Club, visit-