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'Jupiter Joe' Brings Stargazing to the Bronx

By Jeanmarie Evelly | October 23, 2012 9:57am

PELHAM PARKWAY — Ryanne Cortes, 9, says she’s never actually seen the Big Dipper, or recognized any of the other constellations in the night sky.

“On a TV show I’ve seen it,” the Bronx fourth-grader said.

Her plight is common for city kids, who, surrounded by streetlights and skyscrapers, don’t get many opportunities to see the starts outside of a planetarium. But one Pelham Parkway resident who calls himself Jupiter Joe is looking to change that.

A Citibank employee by day, Joseph Martinez, 40, has turned his passion for astronomy into a community outreach project. Last year, he bought himself a quality telescope and started Jupiter Joe's Sidewalk Astronomy, an effort to instill his love for science and the stars to his Bronx neighbors. 

"In our neighborhood, and in general, there's no outlet for kids to learn like that anymore," he said. "Schools are geared toward just taking a test."

Martinez brings his telescope to community events, his local park, or simply sets it up out on the sidewalk near his home on Pelham Parkway, and invites the public to take a peek at the sky. He he points out visible planets and stars, and gives lessons on sun spots or magnetic poles, and shows them how to tell the difference between a planet and a star (the trick? only stars twinkle).

At the NYCHA Pelham Parkway Community Center on Friday, Martinez taught Ryanne and the rest of her Girl Scout troop (including his two daughters, 10 and 12) how to make star charts, handheld maps that astronomers use to help them locate major stars and constellations that are visible during a given time of year.

“I think it’s cool,” said Kyrah Williams, 10, as she cut her a circular map of constellations from a piece of paper. The fifth-grader said the most stars she’s ever seen was on at camp in upstate New York.

“When I went to camp, we were in the woods and I saw a lot,” she said. “It was awesome.”

Martinez, a life-long Bronx resident, has had an affinity for the sky since his youth.

"I never had a telescope as a kid. I had lots of binoculars," he said. "I tried to stargaze as much as I could."

It was on summer vacations to upstate New York where he finally got a proper view of the heavens, unhampered by light pollution — and he's been hooked ever since. 

"That was probably the first time I'd ever seen the Milky Way," Martinez recalled. 

Every borough, with the exception of the Bronx, has telescope observation events each month, Martinez said. A member of the Amateur Astronomers Association, he decided to start hosting his own viewing parties with friends and family in the Pelham Parkway neighborhood. One night, after setting up his telescope in nearby Bronx Park, he caught the attention of a group of interested youngsters. 

"I was mobbed by about 15 kids," he recalled. "All of them had questions." 

Martinez said he was surprised by how little the group seemed to know about space — that they didn't know the sun was a star, or what's on the surface of the moon.

"We look at children and when they have a question, we tell them to go to Google," he said.

That's when he decided to start hosting his Sidewalk Astronomy events. He brought his telescope to the Allerton Avenue Street Fair this summer, and has set it up on corners and sidewalks around the community for the last several months. The telescope, a Celestron, is computerized, Martinez said, which means you can focus it on an object in the sky and the telescope will track it for you — making it easier to use, and less intimidating, to newcomers.

Many New Yorkers, he said, don't realize just how much you can see of the stars and planets even here in New York City. 

"They think you're not going to be able to see anything, [or] they see four stars," he said. "Once you train your eyes, there's a lot more that you can see, even if unaided by telescopes. You just have to learn where to look."