Blackwater’s new frontier: the night sky

By Debra R. Messick, Special to Dorchester Banner
Posted 5/27/22

Since its creation in the 1930s, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge has been a must-see destination for viewing breathtaking flora and fauna. 

Now, in addition to marsh and …

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Blackwater’s new frontier: the night sky


Since its creation in the 1930s, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge has been a must-see destination for viewing breathtaking flora and fauna. 

Now, in addition to marsh and woodland, visitors can explore an equally impressive vista overhead.

In 2021, plans to purchase and install a powerful telescope in the field, the “south lawn” behind the refuge Visitor’s Center, got underway and made steady progress. This past winter, the compact but powerful 12-inch aperture telescope featuring a folded optical system was installed, and a platform and weather-safe containment completed. The next step, visually visiting star clusters and constellations, colorful multiple star systems, and various gaseous nebulas, along with images of distant galaxies via a specially installed sensitive camera, is literally on the horizon.

The inaugural First Light Night Sky telescope viewing, originally set to take place May 15, was rescheduled for May 17 due to a stormy and cloudy forecast. Billed as the First Light Event, it marked the start of a series of Night Sky Tours to be offered at the refuge.

Due to logistical space and time limitations, this initial event was offered by email invitation.

“First Light” refers to the astronomical tradition taking place when control of the telescope is transferred from the engineers to the astronomers, according to retired astrophysicist and Friend of Blackwater Vice President Dr. Harry Heckathorn, who was instrumental in bringing the program to light and making it a reality.

Friends of Blackwater President Richard Abend has been on board right alongside him from the outset, providing hands-on labor along with organizational support.

“I'm very excited we're bringing this free educational offering to Blackwater NWR and feel like it will bring many new visitors to the refuge. I don't know of any other National Wildlife Refuge in the nation offering a unique program like our Night Sky Tours,” noted Abend.

Heckathorn is also delighted in offering Night Sky viewing opportunities to people from nearby metropolitan areas including Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C. and those interested in seeing the stars so vital to Harriet Tubman and other freedom seekers in this area who relied on them to navigate to reach safety.

In an article in the National Wildlife Refuge Association’s online publication The Link’s Spring 2022 edition, Heckathorn explained why Blackwater was especially suited to the program.

“Satellite images of Earth at night show that Blackwater has the darkest skies east of the Interstate 95 corridor – particularly when looking south down the Chesapeake and toward the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Night sky photographs inspired the Friends of Blackwater to construct a small astronomical observatory for public night sky tours,” Heckathorn wrote.

The photos were taken during annual Milky Way photography workshops held over the past few years, organized by Robert Sullivan of Working Image Photography, with all proceeds donated by FOB.

“Receiving the $5,000 grant from the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area and Maryland Heritage Area Authority was icing on the cake and allowed us to put Harry's plan in motion. The refuge staff and our volunteer support has been amazing. Over a dozen people have helped with the construction. With Harry's meticulous planning, the project has come together very smoothly,” Abend said. 

Abend, Heckathorn, Refuge Visitor Services Manager Ray Peterra and other volunteers built the telescope’s concrete pedestal and a surrounding wooden platform to help viewers maintain safe footing. Heckathorn also designed the telescope’s customized protective enclosure, fitted with fans, heaters and humidity preventing silica. The portable unit’s platform rises and lowers to safely allow the telescope to be removed from its concrete perch.

On a recent unseasonably cool night, Heckathorn and Computer “guru” Bob Quinn braved harsh winds and chilly temperatures to install updates allowing the telescope to interface with a virtual camera, designed to enable viewing inside the Visitor’s Center during cold or buggy weather and for people with disabilities prohibiting their accessing the outdoor site.

Initially asked to head the Friends’ scholarship awards program, Heckathorn then assisted photographer Tom Hook in setting up the Friends’ first digital osprey webcam in February 2018, going on to prepare additional cameras focusing on waterfowl, eagles and most recently, river osprey.

His interest in night sky viewing literally began in the fields of his Minnesota boyhood, where he had many opportunities for stargazing, especially during his predawn paper route.

Heckathorn also cited his dad’s homebuilt backyard telescope (“that was the most affordable way for people who wanted telescopes in those days”) as well as his high school astronomy club as influences.

But he points to a ride in his dad’s Buick one fateful 1957 day, during which he heard the radio news announcement about the Russian satellite Sputnik going into orbit around the Earth, as the actual unofficial launch of his eventual career path first in astronomy then space science and rocketry.

He earned his doctorate in astrophysics in 1970, held a post-doctoral position at what was then NASA’s Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston, worked in the physics departments of the University of Houston and Johns Hopkins University and worked 25 years in the Space Science Department of the Naval Research Laboratory developing astronomical instruments for use at terrestrial observatories, on sounding rockets and on the space shuttle. From there, he became interested in rocketry and missile defense, managing the development and use of simulation software and data archiving and retrieval facilities for the Missile Defense Agency.

Retiring in 2006, Heckathorn relocated from Arlington, Virginia, to Church Creek with his wife Glenna, a longtime health care industry professional, who currently serves as the Mid-Shore League of Women Voters Co-Convener.

For updated announcements, Abend recommends following the Friends of Blackwater Facebook page for Night Sky Tours.

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