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New telescope brings valley closer to the stars

Latest addition is final piece needed before it can open

Seeing to the far corners of our galaxy has gotten a lot easier for area residents, with the installation of the largest publicly owned telescope in Colorado at the Gunnison Valley Observatory (GVO).

 

 

In fact, trying to view the moon through the 30-inch Cassegrain telescope would be a bit overwhelming, says Mike Brooks, a professor at Western State College and member of the GVO board. It’s just too close.
Instead, distant nebulae and open star clusters are more in the range of what astronomers and star gazers can hope to see, along with clear views of any planet in the solar system.
“For public viewings we will be looking at planets like Saturn and Jupiter, galaxies and quite a range of astronomical objects,” says Brooks. “It’s substantial enough that low-level research can be done with it and we’ll be able to see a lot of galaxies that are close to our galaxy.”
Because of the observatory’s location, at just over 7,700 feet at the base of Tenderfoot Mountain west of Gunnison, there is very little light or air pollution to obstruct the sky, making the conditions for viewing distant celestial bodies nearly ideal.
The telescope made its way to Gunnison on May 16 from the Black Forest Observatory near Colorado Springs by way of several stops in Texas, where it was being modified to fit the needs of its new owners. Some of the parts that needed modification were the fork arm, which holds the telescope, and the gearing that allows it to move smoothly in small increments.
“We retained some of the optical components and gear components from the initial telescope, but it really lacked the sophistication of drive and it was not a modern mount, so it wasn’t as solid as some people thought it should be,” says Brooks.
With the whole project costing nearly $500,000, the observatory, which operates as a non-profit organization, was able to generate funds from county and city grants, civic organizations and private donations.
“Making a telescope like this one is a custom project. It’s not something you can just get off the shelf,” says Brooks. “If you were able to go out and get a completed scope like this it would cost between $250,000 and $300,000. Just the telescope [without the mount] would cost more than $100,000.”
Although the installation, which involved lifting a 650-pound piece of the system into place with a crane, is not quite complete, the observatory should be open to the public by the middle of June, offering viewings starting each Friday at sunset.
“We’re hoping to have it available to be rented for research purposes or for private viewings and then open to the public for a nominal fee,” says Brooks, adding that some of the anticipated research includes studies of asteroids, extra-solar planets, and Cataclysmic variables—stars in the latter stages of life undergoing rapid changes near Earth,.
The telescope is a 30-inch Dall-Kirkham Cassegrain, which refers to “the optical style of the telescope, where light comes in and hits a primary mirror, then bounces to a secondary mirror then goes down through a hole in the main mirror,” says Brooks.
The Dall-Kirkham aspect is a variation on the Cassegrain style, “having a fairly narrow field of view but allows us to look at things that are exceedingly large,” notes Brooks.
After the idea for the project was first conceived in 2001, it was not a smooth ride from start to finish. The inspiration behind it was a vision held by two local businessmen, Tom Willis and Tod VanDewalker, who, after getting started, encountered some hurdles in getting the project completed.
“The fact that the telescope was under reconstruction in Texas and that process had drug out, which caused a wane in the visibility of the project—people didn’t know what was going on with it,” says Hap Channell, the chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, who was instrumental in reenergizing the project.
“[The commissioners] started looking into what we could do and realized that the county was the primary owner of the project. After donating the land and donating money, the county had more skin in the game than anyone and it occurred to us that if this thing was going to go, we needed to do something,” he says.
By February 2007, Channell had gathered a new observatory board; the members saw the project through to its current stage, now near completion.
“What Hap did was a clever and wise way to go about reconfiguring the board. He got various members of the community, stakeholders, to buy in, so he got someone from the RE1 School District, the National Park Service, the college, the county, the city, the amateur astronomy club and a lot of others involved,” says Brooks. “That system is what has given it its real strength from the get-go.”
“We’re very, very excited about the possibilities for Gunnison Valley and the scientific community here and for the school kids. There is a real potential benefit here for the valley from the educational, economic development and research aspects,” says Channell, who taught Earth Science at the Gunnison high school and “holds a fascination for the heavens, like most people.”
But for Brooks, the building of the board and all the rest is history.
“What we’re excited about now is the potential for what [the observatory] will be in the next two or three weeks.”
For more information on the observatory and its offerings, go to www.coloradoskies.com.

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