Star-gazing at Custer Observatory, a North Fork institution

Charles Cardona was too young to become a member when he first visited the Custer Observatory in the late 1970s, but he fell in love with the opportunity for exploration the facility provides.

Eager to spend more time at the Southold astronomy landmark, which was just a few miles from his home, young Mr. Cardona got a job sweeping floors there. He was paid $5 per week, but it was worth much more than that to him.

Now 52 and president of the Custer Institute board, Mr. Cardona was among a group of about a dozen observatory regulars who gathered there Friday for some informal star-gazing.

“Custer is a special place,” the Calverton resident said.

The Custer Institute was established in 1927 and is the oldest observatory on Long Island. It is open to the public — rain or shine — for four hours every Saturday night.

On other nights, such as this one, a smaller, close-knit group of local astronomy buffs gathers to learn and share their knowledge of space. Surrounded by old photos, memorabilia and telescopes, club members discuss various scientific topics while eating snacks and occasionally peeking their heads outside to see if the sky is clear.

“Some people use yoga for meditation, but for a lot of us here, including myself, this is my meditation,” board secretary Jim Bowden said. “It puts you in a different world.”

Custer members (from left) Tyler True, Cynthia Cichanowicz, Jim Stavola, Charles Cardona and his son Matt with the facility’s new Zerochromat telescope. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Mr. Bowden, of New Suffolk, said one of his goals is to take astrophotography more seriously. Custer Institute members have the opportunity to learn how to attach their cameras to the new high-tech telescope to take images of the sky.

Cynthia Cichanowicz of Cutchogue teaches members how to take these photos and has even printed about a dozen images that now decorate the top of the table in the common room.

Over the years, the observatory has been visited by many big names in science, including Albert Einstein and Peter Van de Kamp, a well-known astronomer in the 1960s and ’70s. The museum collection includes century-old telescopes and equipment that belonged to people like Henry Fitz, a noted telescope maker from the 1800s, and James Short, an 18th-century telescope maker.

While much of the facility has remained the same over the years, a lot has also changed, perhaps most notably the inclusion of women as members.

Today, members of the observatory volunteer their time for upkeep of the space and organizing programs there. More cultural lectures and events take place at the facility than in the past.

Since February, the main observatory’s dome has been home to a Zerochromat telescope, a $50,000 instrument with computerized controls to point it in the exact direction of a particular constellation or planet for observation. One volunteer who gives tours frequently said that when people visit for the first time and look through the telescope, the image is so clear and close that they think it is fake.

Member Tyler True of Shirley has been coming to the facility since February. He uses a workspace in the basement of the observatory for inventions. Currently, he’s working on creating a board for guests to stand on that will make the telescope automatically pan with the person when they lean in a certain direction.

An image taken with the Zerochromat telescope. (Credit: Custer Institute)

Mr. True is part of the “makers group” at the institute, which uses the workshop space to develop projects.

“The fact that this place is open to the public is a major boon,” Mr. True said, adding that over the years the members have created a more friendly and accessible environment. “People who generally want to participate can come here and be a part of things.”

Ms. Cichanowicz said she wants to do all she can to educate the community on the programs the institute offers.

“There’s stuff happening here,” she said. “It’s just a really cool place and I would like more people to check it out and see for themselves.”

Ms. Cichanowicz is among the volunteers on duty at the observatory from 8 p.m. to midnight every Saturday, when it is open to the public for tours.

Walking through the doors with his 11-year-old son Friday, Mr. Cardona was transported back to his own childhood, and the first time he visited Custer with his father and yearned to become a member.

He said he’s seen the institute grow over the years as new members lead the way and make changes. He said the people who come there are really what make the observatory a special place.

“I think it’s important to encourage the creativity and the participation and that’s what [we] try to do,” he said.

kmassa@timesreview.com