HARWICH, Mass. — Like glowing gems on black velvet, the stars Arcturus and Spica and the planet Saturn seemed to roll around in the dark skies above the Harwich Elementary School.
"Oh my God!" an observer said as he spotted the rings around Saturn by peering through a cannon-like telescope aimed at the jewel of a planet, surrounded that night by stars in the constellation of Virgo.
Such amazement is the typical reaction for people who encounter the stars close-up through the unusual telescopes and other equipment at the new Harwich observatory.
"We've been able to look at craters on the moon as the sun hits the crater's rim," said an incredulous Larry Brookhart, the school's technology teacher. "In that light, you see the floor of the craters, its rocks and boulders as if you are actually there."
If the observatory's equipment is stellar, its dark location — away from most street lights and lit parking lots — is out of this world.
"We have the ultimate dark sky setting," Brookhart said. "If there's too much light pollution, it renders that big scope useless."
Through generous donations and determination, Brookhart and Tom Leach, both passionate amateur astronomers, have transformed a storage room of playground equipment into a community observatory and classroom over the past year.
The observatory is now ready for prime time as a resource for the schools of Harwich and Chatham, which are creating a regional school district. Future students can use the observatory as a science lab to explore galaxies, photograph the stars and project star maps on its wall. They can learn to navigate, as early explorers did, and use their math and physics skills to identify the elements burning off stars, Brookhart said.
Leach, the Harwich harbormaster as well as president of the Cape Cod Astronomical Society, now has a new venue and new equipment to lead local residents and families on one of his tours of the constellations, star clusters and the double star that the Romans used as an eye test for new soldiers. (If they could see both stars, they passed.)
"You'll never see Saturn like this. It'll knock your socks off," Leach said on a recent night, pretty excited simply by the lack of clouds in the sky.
Astronomy is a field of interest at other Cape schools. The Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District is home to the Werner Schmidt Observatory, created by the Cape society and founded in 1986. Barnstable High School is home to the Cobb Astro Park and its David Cole Observatory.
The Harwich observatory got off the ground a year ago, when Dr. Timothy Barker, an astronomy professor at Wheaton College and a Brewster homeowner, donated his mammoth Tectron Dobsonian-mount reflector with a 32-inch mirror.
"It's easily the most powerful telescope on Cape Cod and probably in Southeastern Massachusetts," Leach said.
Barker also provided the training for the 15-minute routine of using lasers to align the mirrors in the 10-year-old telescope and brought down his college students for a few trial runs.
The budding observatory got another major boost when Peter Napierkowski, an amateur astronomer from Stoughton, donated a 6-inch refractor telescope, "an equally important" piece of equipment, Brookhart said, describing how its optics create a very clear image that can be magnified up to 500 times.
"We can do photographs with this, and part of the donation is a clock drive to keep an image in view," said Brookhart, describing himself as a near-sighted amateur astronomer who never dreamed he would work with equipment as good as this.
Napierkowski bought the telescope an estimated 20 years ago, he said, but now 75, he no longer stays up late to explore the stars. He heard about the observatory through his son, Gordon, who teaches music at the Harwich school.
"I was curious and just liked to look at the stars," the retired semiconductor engineer said about his stargazing days. "I haven't used it for a long time and I'm glad that others will enjoy it."
With strong support from Harwich school officials, Brookhart started applying for grants and seeking donations to support the observatory.
Hinckley Home Center provided the countertops for the classroom and Sherwin-Williams donated the floor paint. Computers and equipment donated by CDI and Dell link via the Internet to other observatories and project star fields and other images on the classroom wall.
The Cultural Council awarded a $500 grant, with another $450 coming from the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank Foundation. The donations helped add equipment, such as the five large binoculars on tripods that will allow five to six people at a time to view the heavens.
Brookhart just finished setting up the observatory a few weeks ago and, although the room may still have a garage door, "it's not a garage anymore," he said.