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Howard Astronomical League set to unveil new observatory at Alpha Ridge

For The Baltimore Sun
Things are looking up: Howard Astronomical League ready to open observatory at Alpha Ridge

Long ago, NASA's programs introduced the country to outer space. Now the Howard Astronomical League is ready to give local astronomy enthusiasts the opportunity to view from Earth what astronauts have seen from space.

On June 27, the league will officially open its new observatory at Alpha Ridge Park in Marriottsville. The light-green building is capped by a dome, 15 feet in diameter, that houses the telescope.

"The goal is to share and give the public as much information as we can," said Chris Miskiewicz, president and publicity chairman of the league. "That's part of our mission, to get the outreach out there and to get people back to looking up at the sky."

If clear skies cooperate, visitors to the grand opening will get close-up views of several planets and the moon.

Guests are invited to bring their own telescopes to the event, but the primary window on space will be the centerpiece of the observatory, the Paul S. Watson Telescope.

Paul Watson, who died in 1987, was curator of astronomy at the Maryland Academy of Sciences and director of the Davis Planetarium at the Maryland Science Center. The Watson Telescope is one of two built in 1937 by Baltimore machinist Joseph Woods — Woods kept one and gave the other to Watson, who placed the instrument on his property on the Magothy River near Annapolis.

The 12-inch-diameter telescope, 6 feet tall and weighing about 200 pounds, is made of steel. The Howard Astronomical League inherited it from the Friends of the Baltimore Astronomical Society, which disbanded in early 1999.

"A top-quality telescope did not get lost to history," said Malcolm Willette, a founding member of the Howard Astronomical League. "The engineering of the Watson is what makes it unique. Generally speaking, it was built on the same kind of machines that they built railroad engines on. No one would build this telescope today."

"The Watson makes this observatory unique," said Joel Goodman, director of the new observatory at Alpha Ridge and a Howard Astronomical League member since 2000.

"We saw this installation as a way to create a center for astronomy in Howard County," Goodman said, noting that the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute are all close by.

"Howard Community College has an astronomy program," he added. "We wanted to be seen as a go-to regarding astronomy outreach."

The observatory project was conceived 15 years ago, shortly after the establishment of the Howard Astronomical League.

Members met in 2005 with Gary Arthur Sr., then director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks, to discuss the idea.

Arthur embraced the notion and told members what would be needed to make the vision a reality. In gratitude for his encouragement, the league dedicated the observatory to him.

It wasn't hard to find a suitable location. Alpha Ridge Park has long been the site of the league's "star parties" — held twice a month on Saturdays from March to November. It was a natural choice as the site of the observatory. Construction began in October.

"It's dark here, and we get some good views [of space]," said Miskiewicz, who teaches at Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. "There are a lot of other facilities here that make this work. It's not out of the way. People know where we are, and what we're doing."

While Arthur provided significant help and encouragement to the league's members, he was not alone. Columbia-based Arium AE handled the architectural plans, Columbia Engineering created structural plans and Company Seven, a Laurel-based astronomy store, refurbished the telescope mount. The builder was Gawthrop Builders LLC. The cost of the observatory was about $100,000 to $125,000.

"Every individual who we contacted said 'that's cool' and wanted to be a part of it," Goodman said. "The goal was to build a publicly accessible observatory, and now we have an observatory that is open to the citizens of Howard County. That's special."

If you go

A ceremony to formally open the new Howard Astronomical League Observatory will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 27. The observatory is at Alpha Ridge Park, 11699 Old Frederick Road, Marriottsville.

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