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Custer's cluster of telescopes.

"So, which Alvan Clark refractor would you like tonight? I'll tell you what: you use the 6-inch, and I'll use the 5, then we'll switch and compare notes later." Sound like an amateur astronomer's pipe dream? Well, this is exactly the kind of dilemma you'll find as member of the Custer Institute in New York.

This amateur-astronomy education center located at Long Island's North Fork is home to two fine antique brass telescopes made by Clark. The 6-inch is housed inside a 25-foot dome, while the 5-inch is just a few steps away in a roll-off-roof observatory. The latter also shelters on a separate mount a 6-inch refractor made by the noted instrument maker Lauits C. Eichner. As if these weren't enough, there are also a 6-foot-wide radio-telescope dish in the yard and a Yagi antenna on the roof dedicated to Jupiter observations.

The North Fork, about 100 miles east of New York City, is about as rural as Long Island gets. There are farms, roadside stalls, orchards, and vineyards, many of which are open to the public. Although light pollution is now a concern, it was not a factor when the organization began in the late 1920s.

The Custer Institute was started by Charles W. Elmer, of Perkin-Elmer fame, and other science-minded neighbors who either lived or summered in Southold, the town where the facility is located. They often met at Elmer's summer home during World War II to discuss the latest developments in science and sometimes to stargaze into the wee hours.

Charles's wife, May Custer-Elmer, was apparently quite a hostess who treated her guests royally. In return, the group named their newly constructed observatory after her. May Custer was the grandniece of - you guessed it - George Armstrong Custer, the famous Civil War general.

The main observatory, towering nearly three stories high, was formally dedicated on August 30, 1947. The 6-inch Clark sits atop a massive concrete pier that extends some 30 feet below the ground. The observatory's interior has enough room for a small crowd. Its first and second floors feature a gallery of astrophotographs and paintings, antique astronomical instruments, and a first-rate library.

A large lecture hall, which can seat a hundred or so guests, adjoins the observatory. Below is a basement occupied by a host of optical fabricating and testing equipment, as well as a radio-astronomy laboratory. Radio astronomy is a serious endeavor at Custer. During last year's Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacts on Jupiter members had their antenna receivers trained on the planet to monitor the event in the decimeter-wavelength band.

Custer was not always the open and inviting place it is today. During the 1970s it had the reputation of being a rather exclusive and elitist men's club in danger of ossifying. Fortunately, a new breed of officers (C. Douglas Hardy, James Knowles, Ellen DeMaria, Robert Duraski, George Lomaga, and Barbara Lebkeucher, to name a few) took on the task of reinvigorating the organization. Custer has since been host to a camera club, shortwave-radio club, comet club, and variable-star observers group among others. Today the institute has 100 members. Of the 50 or more active ones, half are women.

What's in store for Custer? A 24-inch, research-grade Cassegrain will soon be installed in a new observatory on Custer's grounds by the State University of New York (SUNY) in Stony Brook. The telescope, manufactured in England and valued at over $100,000, was originally used by SUNY at Mount Hopkins in Arizona before it was mothballed due to budget cuts. Instead of paying nearly $3,000 a year in storage fees, the university decided to donate the 24-inch to the institute. Once in place, it will be coupled to a CCD camera, as well as various photometric instruments and computers. The data thus obtained can be transmitted via modem to virtually any location.

The Custer Institute, on Main Bayview Road just off Route 25 in Southold, Long Island, is open free to the public for astronomical viewing every Saturday night, weather permitting. Call 516-765-2626.

WILLIAM M. HART is a freelance science writer and an active member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. He has 3-, 4-, and 6-inch telescopes that he uses at his vacation home in Mastic Beach, Long Island.
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Title Annotation:Custer Institute, New York
Author:Hart, William M.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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