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Astronomy club partners with county to build observatory

Since the Howard County Astronomical League was formed in 1999, its members have been wishing on a star for a home for their historic telescope. This fall, that home will be built at Alpha Ridge Park, in Marriottsville.

HAL, a nonprofit astronomy club, was founded as a spinoff of the Baltimore Astronomical Society, mainly to build an observatory to house the telescope, which former Johns Hopkins University astronomer Paul Watson constructed in the 1930s or 1940s. Watson owned and used the telescope for his research before donating it to the Baltimore society.

"It's a thing of beauty; it looks like something out of an H.G. Wells novel," HAL President Bob Prokop said. "It's been restored to absolute perfect working order."

Though no dates are final, the observatory's groundbreaking at Alpha Ridge is expected in late summer or early fall and the opening, called "first light," could be as early as winter 2011 or as late as spring 2012.

"This is one (project) that really makes me smile," said County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who was one of the founding members of HAL. "The telescope itself is gorgeous."

Sigaty said the observatory, which will be open by appointment only for educational and community groups, will allow HAL to "do one of the things that it likes doing best, which is educating the public."

County Recreation and Parks Director John Byrd agreed that the observatory, the first in the county on public land, will be a great educational tool.

"It helps people learn the correlation of the night sky and the seasons of the Earth and all of those connections," he said. "We hope they'll be able to expand their night sky programs and we'll be able to partner with them to offer more programs through recreation and parks."

Though the county will own the observatory, appointments for groups who wish to visit will be scheduled through HAL, which will still own the Watson telescope.

'Dark sky site'

HAL selected Alpha Ridge from a list of 32 possible sites for the observatory because of its prime location, according to Joel Goodman, HAL's observatory chairman and a member of the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board.

"It is a relatively dark sky site," he said, because of its proximity to properties that do not use a lot of lighting, including the Alpha Ridge Landfill, the Howard County Conservancy, Patapsco State Park and several agricultural preservation parcels.

Goodman added: "You can clearly see the Milky Way from Alpha Ridge on any clear, moonless night."

HAL, which has about 150 members, has been using the park for years as the location for its star parties, held twice a month.

The foundation for the observatory is being funded and built by the county as a part of a project to add restrooms, parking lot lights and other updates to the park, Byrd said. The design and construction of the 18-foot by 30-foot concrete foundation will cost the county $28,000, he said.

The state approved $25,000 in bond funding, which HAL has matched with donations, for the observatory. The funding will be used to pay for the construction of the walls, a 15-foot by 15-foot staging area and a wheelchair lift. HAL already owns the dome used to protect the telescope.

Because the observing platform for the telescope can only accommodate five people at a time, the telescope will be hooked up to a projector, which will display the images on one of the outside walls of the observatory.

The observatory, Goodman said, will serve as a nice compliment to astronomy programs that will be offered at the Robinson Nature Center in Columbia, which will be opening in September.

"The opportunity with these things finally coming together are fabulous," Sigaty agreed.

Prokop said he hopes the observatory will inspire people to want to learn more about nature and the universe.

"It will put Howard County on the map as interested in science, interested in education," he said. "I think this will be a feather in our cap."

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