CAPE COD BAY — The Milky Way unfurls across the night sky like a gauzy, sequined bridal veil. Stretching from horizon to horizon, 400 billion stars strong, it shimmers and winks. We are sitting on the deck of a boat 15 miles out of Plymouth, bundled up against the night air, cold even in August. It’s nearly midnight.
From the bridge, Mark Coppinger explains that the key to successful stargazing is darkness. On the Bortle scale, which measures light pollution from 1 (least) to 9, we’re around 4, comparable to conditions in rural Vermont. (In a Bortle scale 1 area, he said, the Milky Way actually casts a shadow.) We follow his laser pointer as it picks out the North Star and the constellation Perseus. Suddenly a star streaks across the sky, eliciting a long “oooh” from the passengers. This is why we have come, for a chance to see the best of this year’s Perseid meteor shower.
The boat tour is a new venture for the self-taught astronomer, who typically introduces newcomers to the stars through astronomy tours at his tree farm in Colchester, Conn. In the winter months, visitors bundle up in blankets and stretch out on lounge chairs for the show. Using large telescopes and high-powered laser pointers, Coppinger guides them through stars, planets, galaxies, and nebulae in a 90-minute tour.
“For me, it’s the mystery of the night sky,” he says. “It’s not just points of light but something profound every time I see it. To be someone who can introduce that beauty and mystery to average people who never get to enjoy it themselves — that’s what motivates me to do the tours.” In a typical group of 30 people, he says, about half say they have never seen the Milky Way or a shooting star.
Coppinger, 48, grew up in Glastonbury, Conn. He planted the small organic Christmas tree farm in 2001 and began selling four years ago. An accountant by trade, he calls the tree farm his hobby and retirement dream.
His interest in astronomy dates to childhood; he bought his first telescope at the age of 12. He was always interested in science, he says, and Carl Sagan’s 1980 television series, “Cosmos,” set him on the course to learning about the stars.
Those who participate in the astronomy tours can expect to see star clusters, the moon, planets, and satellites. On moonless nights, they may see “deep space objects,” which are typically fainter and harder to discern, such as galaxies and nebulae. Following Coppinger’s introduction, participants have a chance to look more closely through his two telescopes. Every night is different, in terms of what’s visible, he said, making the experience unlike a visit to a planetarium.
The most dramatic celestial event he has witnessed was a fireball — a very large meteor with a blazing red tail — this summer over Cape Cod Bay.
Along with other astronomers, Coppinger is keeping a close eye on the comet Ison. A year ago, it was being called the “comet of a lifetime,” but optimism is waning since it’s impossible to predict how well it will endure its encounter with the sun. If it survives, Coppinger said, the best chance to see it will be in early to mid-December and he’s planning special viewings for that best-case scenario.
MARK’S TREE FARM Norwich Avenue, Lebanon, Conn. 860-908-3853, www.astronomer-mark.com. Adults $65 ($50 for groups of five or more booking together), children ages 5-12 $25 (not recommended for children under 5). Tours operate Saturday evenings from November to April, Friday and Saturday in May and June, and Thursday through Saturday July through October.Ellen Albanese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version had the incorrect website for astronomer-mark.com.