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Observatory is heavenly mission for Howard Astronomical League

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Stephanie Todd, 8, smiled broadly as she talked about the pink telescope that sits in her home. But she's even more excited about the opportunity to look through a telescope that has some history.

"The first thing I'm going to look for is [the constellation] Orion," she said, "which is the kind of star that I see outside, and is always so noticeable."

If everything goes as planned for the Howard Astronomical League, Stephanie will be gazing at Orion through the Paul Watson telescope — a device built by a renowned Johns Hopkins University professor that will be the main attraction at Howard County's new observatory.

The observatory, to be built in Marriottsville's Alpha Ridge Park, is scheduled for a groundbreaking this spring and is to open to the public in early fall.

"It sounds like a really good place to see what people used back in the old times," said Stephanie, a Catonsville resident and member of the Celestial Searchers astronomy kids' club, which meets at Bushy Park Elementary School in Glenwood.

The club, which had one of its sessions Tuesday with youngsters and league members sharing ideas and projects, is among the year-round outreach efforts hosted by the astronomical league.

Members of the league hope the observatory will give residents a hands-on opportunity to learn more about space and astronomy, and give them a greater opportunity to share their passion for the stars.

The observatory will be funded by the astronomical league through a partnership with the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, and has been a labor of love for the league as a home for the Watson telescope.

The instrument — 6 feet tall, 200 pounds with a 12-inch diameter scope — is known for its accuracy in tracking targets and will be fitted with a computer-controlled tracking mechanism.

During the 1930s, Watson built and erected the scope on property overlooking the Magothy River near Annapolis. After his death in 1986, his estate donated it to the Maryland Academy of Sciences. A group known as the Friends of the Baltimore Astronomical Society took possession of it and gave it to the Howard Astronomical League 15 years ago.

"Essentially, [our organization] was founded in 1999 with the idea of building a permanent home for this antique telescope, and we knew that it would serve as a great centerpiece for our public outreach activities," said Chris Todd of Catonsville, the league's president.

Joel Goodman, chairman of the observatory project for the 150-member league, said that when the group received the Watson telescope, the league embraced a mission to "go out and raise $150,000 to build the observatory."

Goodman credits county government, and specifically recreation officials, for realizing the potential.

"Over the last 12 years, everyone that we contacted said, 'Great idea, here's what you need to do next' or 'What can I do?' " said Goodman, a retired dentist from Glenelg. "In 2006, rec and parks agreed to provide the land to do this project, and gave us a list of 32 open space and parkland sites in the county to evaluate."

After a review process, the league focused on Alpha Ridge Park, which provides better viewing because it is away from city lights.

"On a clear, moonless night, you can see the Milky Way out there," Goodman said. "It is surrounded by the footprint of the Howard County landfill and Patapsco State Park."

The project was approved in 2008 and received plenty of help from county businesses. Architectural plans were drawn up by Columbia firm Arium A.E., and structural plans were handled by Columbia Engineering. Company Seven, a Laurel-based astronomy store, agreed to refurbish the telescope mount.

The league raised nearly $22,000 in donations from members and private organizations, and spent about a third of that on the purchase of a 15-foot, clear fiberglass dome.

Howard County's delegation to the General Assembly in Annapolis secured a state grant that matched a grant from the county for about $843,000 in improvements to Alpha Ridge Park, including a comfort station, parking lot upgrades and the facility's foundation.

"The total cost of the observatory will be just under $100,000," Goodman said, though he noted that its total value, including the work that has been donated, is close to that $150,000 target.

The 18-by-30-foot observatory will feature the dome, an observation platform and a concrete pier. One of the observatory's walls will be used as a projection screen, enabling the league to project live video images captured by the Watson telescope.

"This scope has such a history, and it's just kept going," said Chris Miskiewicz, second vice president of the league. He said during the group's periodic "star parties," people will also be able to look through other telescopes outside the dome.

"We're excited about sharing it with the public," Goodman said. "I also see us having lectures and planetarium programs in the auditorium at the Robinson Nature Center [in Columbia], then having people come out to their cars and drive eight miles north to the park for a night of observing."

At the beginning of Tuesday's Celestial Searchers meeting, Goodman told the gathering of nine elementary school-age children and parents the story of Watson and his telescope.

"The telescope is for you," he said, "and you're going to be the end of this story."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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