From Milky Way Viewing to Meteor Showers, Frosty Drew Offers Many Reasons to Look Up

Charlestown’s observatory gives stargazers a sense of place in our vast galaxy


On a warm evening in Ninigret Park, even before the sun has set, a steady stream of visitors rolls up to the Frosty Drew Observatory & Sky Theatre. Outside the dome that houses the PlaneWave – their primary telescope – a small crowd is already huddled around equipment, not gazing at constellations but at sunspots.

For those who took notice of the cosmos this past year to gaze at the partial solar eclipse through protective glasses or see the Aurora Borealis cast colorful light shows over Rhode Island skies, the sun is a good first star to chart a longer voyage of learning about outer space. “The sun is the only star in the entire universe that we can actually look at and see these atmospheres, see the surface area,” says observatory director Scott MacNeill. “Visitors can look at the big flames coming off the side of the sun. We look at sunspots. We look at the magnetic field lines that flow around the solar chromosphere.”

MacNeill describes April’s solar eclipse as “a fantastic day of true astrogeekery,” in which Frosty Drew’s team of astronomers were stationed along the path of totality, from Texas to Maine, and the event was live-streamed over YouTube. The Aurora Borealis making a rare appearance in Rhode Island this past May created a similar stir, as staff hopped on their Discord server to locate the notoriously hard-to-predict phenomenon. “Once we saw the Interplanetary K-Index [a space weather indicator] jump to nine – the highest we have ever seen – we all grabbed our cameras and set out in all directions,” says MacNeill.

He appreciates these buzzworthy astronomical events for another reason, too: “Any opportunity to speak with the general public about space is the chance of a lifetime.” Equally as important as seeing planets, stars, nebulae, and other far-away celestial bodies is visitors understanding what they’re looking at, which is why it’s Frosty Drew’s mission to distill complex astrophysical concepts into plain language.

If an avid astronomer asks a technical question,  for instance, a staff member will rephrase it for the room and facilitate discussions that all visitors, no matter their prior knowledge or cosmic perspective, can engage with. The team is also made up of varied backgrounds, from astrophysicists and nuclear engineers to teachers and astrologers. “We want visitors to leave thinking about what they learned that night and coming up with questions about the inspirational experience they had, instead of leaving confused.”


In the interim of dusk, just after the sun has disappeared behind the treeline but before it’s dark enough to see any stars, there’s a palpable anticipation among the onlookers, necks craning, eager to spot the first twinkle of light in the sky – a singular moment that goes unnoticed most nights, if you’re
anywhere else.

“This is a good time for visitors to check out the Science Center, to talk with our team members, to kind of get a tour of what’s going on,” says MacNeill. Then, the rumble of the observatory dome shifting into position signals the transition into night. Staff operating telescopes on the lawn choose a cosmic subject, and the first group of dome observers queues up.

Inside, peering through the PlaneWave, even the casual enthusiast can be taken by what MacNeill calls “geek moments.” “Sometimes people are on a date and they’re all dressed up, acting super cool,” he recounts, grinning. “They come up to the eyepiece and see the rings of Saturn and the storms, all the different color bands – all the coolness just drops off and this geek comes out. You get a lot of different reactions from people, a lot of laughter, people who swear. I had someone punch me once – they immediately apologized.”

“It’s when they’re faced with something they didn’t expect,” MacNeill adds. Often, this has to do with distances, and the realization that something you’re looking at through a telescope “could be anywhere from eight minutes to billions of years in the past.”

One of MacNeill’s favorite celestial bodies to show the room isn’t a star but a quasar – an extremely luminous object – that’s only visible about two weeks every 14 years. “It just looks like this little tiny star, but what you’re looking at is eight and half billion light years distant, which means those photons that you’re capturing in your eyes have been traveling for eight and half billion years. It really challenges people’s existential view.”


Depending on the season you visit, the time of night, and moon phase, what you see at Frosty Drew varies. Through the PlaneWave, I saw Algieba, in the Leo constellation, and learned that many of the stars visible to the naked eye are actually binary systems – two stars.

Visitors often come to MacNeill asking about how to see our home galaxy. Because of light pollution, “most people in this area have never seen the Milky Way,” he says. During the summer, on a Saturday night without the moon’s glow and when the conditions are best suited to view it, Frosty Drew hosts a Celebrate the Milky Way event to showcase the different regions of the galaxy, and our place in it. “It gives people a chance to experience a view that a hundred years ago, every person on the planet had and now it’s such a rarity for people to see it.”

Along with observing via the naked eye, “all of our telescopes will show objects that are along the galactic plane,” says MacNeill. “We look at young star-forming regions, stars that are dying. We look at a little region in Sagittarius, where you have a dark hydrogen gas cloud and next to it a little star cluster, but it’s against the galactic nucleus, so there’s just billions of stars – it looks like somebody scooped up the stars and dropped them in a pile.”

While MacNeill’s answer to the frequently asked question of “do aliens exist?” will disappoint X-Files fans, he does believe in this: “The first humans to visit Mars are walking around on Earth right now,” he says. “We want to meet these people. We want to let them know they can do this, that they actually have the chance to inspire future generations to reach for the sky.”



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