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Few residents of the North Shore know about the free stellar experience available to the public every week at the Mendel Observatory. On Wednesday nights, located on the fourth floor of Merrimack College’s Palmisano Hall, the Mendel Observatory hosts public stargazing beginning at dusk or 7:30 p.m., whichever comes later. The observatory also often hosts special viewing times for extraordinary astronomical events like lunar eclipses.

The observatory—which is used by students, faculty, the North Shore Amateur Astronomy Club (NSAAC), and the general public—houses an Optical Guidance Systems 20-inch Ritchey-Chretien reflector, a specialized telescope designed to eliminate optical errors. Mendel is also equipped with multiple electronic imaging systems which display breathtaking views of the night sky for all visitors to enjoy.

Upon arrival at the Mendel Observatory, visitors will find themselves standing within a cylindrical dome which houses the observatory’s telescope—the largest telescope North of Boston. “There is a slit in the dome which allows the telescope to see out, and the entire structure rotates to allow the telescope to point at any location in the sky,” explains Christopher L. Duston, Assistant Professor of Physics and Director of Merrimack Observatory. “A staff member (faculty, student, or volunteer) is there to control the telescope and explain what’s being looked at.” Rather than only showing constellations, the telescope’s field of view allows observers to marvel at star clusters, nebulae, planets, or other galaxies.

“The biggest draws,” says Duston, “are looking at the moon, Saturn, and Jupiter.” The best times for moon viewing are the weeks before and after a full moon, and the late summer into fall is most popular for gazing at Saturn and Jupiter. “There is really nothing quite like seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope,” says Duston. “Seeing it with your own eyes is a unique experience.”

If you’re ready to jump into stargazing immediately, there is still plenty to see this time of year. The Great Orion Nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy are especially captivating during the winter season. As Duston emphasizes, “There is always something to see!”

Apart from public stargazing events, the observatory is used regularly by Merrimack College undergraduate students. “My personal favorite aspect of [the observatory] is having the ability to engage interested students in research projects,” said Duston. Their current project focuses on the observation of supernovae (exploding stars) and other kinds of variable stars.

Since the Wednesday night stargazing events are weather-dependent, check the observatory’s weather line (978-837-5011) or the NSAAC web page or Facebook page for the nightly status of the observatory before you go. The staff asks that larger groups—about six or more guests—give prior notification of attendance. Special events can also be planned on other nights of the week for large groups. North Shore residents interested in learning more about the North Shore Amateur Astronomy Club can contact the group through their Facebook page and web page for meeting information.

The easiest way to get to the observatory is from the Route 114 entrance (going south). The second right will bring you to the parking lot directly in front of Palmisano Hall (formerly Mendel Hall), which houses Mendel Observatory. The observatory entrance door is labelled on the exterior of the building.