Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

One clear night a year, Vermont astronomers open 'secret window' into outer space

A photo of people and telescopes silhouetted against a dusky sky fading from blue to green to orange against the horizon. The people are looking and pointing skywards.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Every year, you can attend the Spontaneous Evening Under the Stars in Alburgh, Vermont.

Fairfield resident Ben Gillers is looking through a telescope at Saturn.

He proclaims: “That just blew my mind.”

What’s blowing Ben’s mind is that over the course of 10 seconds, Saturn drifts across and then out of the telescope’s view.

“I’m literally seeing the rotation of the earth right now,” Ben says.

Not to mention — Saturn looks just like it does in the pictures, the rings around a globe, yellow. You can even see the little dots that are its moons.

A photo of the planet Saturn with three of its moons. The planet is muted yellow, with its rings glowing.
Space Telescope Science Institute Office of Public Outreach
via Associated Press
This June 2023 image provided by the Space Telescope Science Institute shows the planet Saturn and three of its moons, from left, Enceladus, Tethys and Dione, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. In infrared, the planet appears dark because sunlight is absorbed by methane in the atmosphere.

“You see these pictures online of these, like, artistic pictures of galaxies and nebula. It’s like, oh, man, that's like, that's baloney," Ben says. "Then you go ahead and see … the rings through the eyepiece, and it's like, holy freaking cow. This isn't a joke."

Ben’s view of Saturn came courtesy of a telescope belonging to Brian Johnson, a Grand Isle resident.

"My favorite thing is public outreach. Showing people the sky," Brian says. "I’ve got a secret window that allows you to see things that you can't see with your naked eye."

Brian is among several astronomers who, one evening in late summer, brought their giant telescopes to a field in Alburgh, pointed them at Saturn, nebulas and the moon, and invited anyone who wanted to peer through the eyepiece.

A photo of the moon, half of it lit up, half of it in shadow, against a black sky.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
A photo of the moon made with the help of Scott Turnbull, whose telescope had an attachment for smartphones. Scott is on the board of directors for the Vermont Astronomical Society and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

"I really enjoy when people see Saturn for the first time, or the moon, and go, 'Oh wow!'” Brian says.

"That’s what Saturn should be named, is 'Oh wow,'" Joe Comeau adds. All these telescopes are set up in his backyard orchard, which he opens up to the public for one night a year with the help of the Vermont Astronomical Society and the Grand Isle County nonprofit Island Arts.

It’s called Spontaneous Evening Under the Stars.

"It's a spontaneous evening under the stars, because we never know when it's going to be clear," Joe says. "And we always take a chance."

He's hosted this event since 2011. This year, organizers made the call on a Sunday — three days ahead of time.

And Joe says anywhere between 40 and 120 people stop by. He puts the word out on Front Porch Forum and has a big mailing list. Organizers also post fliers all over town.

A photo of a sandwich board sign reading Vermont Astronomical Society along a rural road abutting water. The sky in the background is dusky pink, purple and blue.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Joe Comeau has been hosting the Spontaneous Evening Under the Star event since 2011.

Newcomer Nathan Browneagle saw one in a local supermarket while visiting from Maryland.

“So decided to come and check it out. Me and my daughter,” Nathan says. “When we got up here, people are saying, 'Oh, there's bug spray. There's cookies, there's lemonade. Come and look at the stars. I'm sure people will let you take a peek.' And so yeah, it’s been really friendly.”

More from Vermont Edition: The 2024 total solar eclipse is coming to Vermont. How to figure out the best viewing spot now

Other people return year after year like Dawn Shearholdt, who spends summers in North Hero.

"I always learn something," Dawn says. "You have a lot of people with, I'm sure I'm not allowed to say this, but big-a-- telescopes that are all pointed at different things. And, you know, sharing that with people that... it makes my heart pound fast! It’s so interesting."

People line up behind Terri Zittritsch’s telescope, which is pointed at M57, or the Ring Nebula.

"It looks like a doughnut," Terri says, to some debate — others suggest it's a bagel.

Whatever baked good it looks like, Terri says the Ring Nebula an expired star: "So some stars go supernova, and some stars aren't big enough to explode. So what they do is they start shedding off their layers, and a lot of times they create what looks like a ring."

A photo of a string of lights against tall grass.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Joe Comeau's guiding red lights around his Alburgh home.

All along the edges of Joe Comeau’s hilltop orchard, strings of red lights float in the shadowy grass.

“We have red lights so that they don't ruin people's night vision," he says. "And also, so people won't be tripping all over. It really gets dark up here.”

The red lights resemble this photograph Joe shows me, one he’s made of the Veil Nebula. He tells me it’s his favorite one.

"It’s my wife’s favorite too. It’s just beautiful," Joe says.

Gas byproducts from an exploded star lay across a starry abyss in layers of red and blue.

"A mixture of glowing hydrogen gas, and also reflected starlight," Joe says. "And glowing oxygen excited by radiation from stars. So it's just gentle. Lacey."

A photograph of the Veil Nebula. Red and blue somewhat transparent gas lays in a line diagonally across starry space. One star is extra bright in the center of the image.
Joe Comeau
The Veil Nebula.

Joe says he has always been interested in astronomy. He shows me to his backyard observatory, a dome rising from the grass with an opening in the top for the telescopes to look through.

"I have quite a few different telescopes," he says.

But Joe didn’t start using big telescopes or doing astrophotography until 2000, when he says digital photography made everything more accessible.

A photo of a man standing next to a large telescope inside a dome, with dusky blue sky in the background.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Joe Comeau stands for a portrait in his backyard observatory.

And he says teaching an astrophotography class for the nonprofit Island Arts is what led to these spontaneous evenings where he and other astronomers share with the public the wonders of the night sky.

"I mean, it's like a national park up there," Joe says. "It's really amazing, really amazing."

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
Latest Stories