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New Bear Branch observatory will open window to Westminster sky

Bear Branch Nature Center will open a whole new window into the universe Saturday, Aug. 22 with the grand opening of the new Westminster Astronomical Society observatory.

At 6:30 p.m., the society and the Carroll County Department of Recreation and Parks will dedicate the Blaine F. Roelke Memorial Observatory, a dome structure housing a 14-inch telescope that will be available for public use. It's an invitation to a free star party and a day long-awaited by members of the astronomy club.

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"The event is really the culmination of a 10-year effort to bring an observatory to Carroll County," said Christian Ready, vice president of the Westminster Astronomical Society. "What's really cool about this is the astronomical footprint at Bear Branch has just doubled, because there is already a planetarium there that they use for the schools … Now, after the planetarium show is over, we can go outside and if it's clear we can open up the observatory."

The planetarium will also be open on Saturday, offering shows for $5, while stargazing through the new telescope will be free, Ready said.

The astronomical society and Carroll County government had gone back and forth on the specific design of the observatory for years without making much progress, according to Ready. He said the observatory was made possible through the donation of the dome and telescope by Frank Roelke, the son of the late Blaine Roelke, who had been a founding member of the astronomical society.

"When Mr. Roelke offered us his father's dome, that was really exciting. Once that piece was in place, suddenly I think a light bulb went off between us and the county," Ready said. "Here we are about a year or so later and it's happened."

For Frank Roelke, the timing and situation made for a perfect way to honor his father, who originally constructed the dome observatory in Keymar before moving it to a dairy farm the family owned in Somerset, Pennsylvania.

"He died two years ago now and I was trying to go all through his assets, I had this dome and this telescope, which were marketable, but on the other hand, selling them, what does that do for you?" Frank said.

While not as involved with the astronomical society as his father had been, Frank Roelke did learn the organization's members were interested in a dome-type observatory for the Bear Branch location.

"I said, 'Great. I'm your guy — I'll dismantle my observatory, move it down here, reconstruct it and put it at Bear Branch, as long as the county approves.'"

The observatory dome was donated to the Department of Recreation and Parks, while the telescope and other equipment belong to the astronomical society, according to Roelke, who said he was thrilled that, after all the work involved, the installation would live on to honor his father in such a public fashion.

"Not only will the public be able to go there for monthly star parties … but in addition to that, every kid that goes to outdoors school, so in theory every sixth-grader in Carroll County should have an opportunity to look through that telescope," he said. "In my opinion, that's the money shot, that's the big one."

The telescope in the observatory, Ready said, is a 14-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain instrument, which uses a set of mirrors to collect light from the night sky. He said its light-gathering capabilities are 3,513 times that of the human eye.

"A 14-inch diameter is a really good-sized scope. We're not talking about a small thing you pick up at Costco — this is a real serious astronomical tool," Ready said. "We are able to show people everything from the moon, where the public will be able to get a really good view of the craters and the geology of the moon, to the planets — the rings of Saturn, the clouds of Jupiter and four of Jupiter's brightest moons. We'll even be able to show them the sun, with a solar filter, and show what an active star our sun really is."

Unlike some mirror-based telescope designs, which require very long tubes and house the eyepiece at the top end of the instrument, making it somewhat inaccessible, Ready said a Schmidt-Cassgrain uses a second mirror to fold the path of the light in the telescope and cut the apparatus' length in half. It's another way Roelke's donation was a perfect match.

"We now get a real compact design that is really easy to use … it makes it so much more accessible to the public," Ready said. "We have the telescope mounted on an adjustable height pier, so we can actually lower the telescope down so that even people in wheelchairs that otherwise could not stand will get to see it. We can also rotate the eyepiece around and make sure it is at eye level even for our younger, future astronomers."

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Reaching those future astronomers, and the curious public in general, is important, Ready said, because despite the availability of beautiful images of space from the Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments, there is something special about looking through telescope with your own eyes.

"Maybe you are looking at a distant galaxy … the light left that galaxy 2 million years ago — just think about that for a moment, dinosaurs were still roaming the planet — and it journeyed all the way through space and time to arrive in your iris," he said. "That little photon of light was seen only by you — you are the only person in the entire universe that collected that photon of light at that moment and it took 2 million years or even 200 million years or even 2 billion years to get to you: It gives me a chill every time I look through a telescope."

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If you go:

What: Grand opening of public observatory

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday Aug. 22

Where: Bear Branch Nature Center, 300 John Owings Road, Westminster

Cost: Star gazing free, planetarium show $5

For more information, go to www.westminsterastro.org.

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