Group plans to build Howard Co.'s first public observatory

After years of planning, a local astronomy group is moving closer toward building the first publicly accessible observatory in Howard County.

The Howard Astronomical League, a club of amateur astronomers, planned to submit architectural drawings to the county this week as an initial step in a more formal application to construct the observatory at Alpha Ridge Community Park in Marriottsville.

Joel Goodman, observatory chairman for the league, said the application marks the culmination of more than a decade of design work and fundraising.

"The funding is there, and site development is under way," he said. "We hope to break ground later this fall or early in the spring."

When it opens, the observatory will be the second public project aimed at teaching Howard County residents about astronomy, along with the planetarium-like "NatureSphere" that opened last month as part of the $17.6 million James and Anne Robinson Nature Center in Columbia. At present, Goodman said, the only observatories in Howard County are in private homes or private institutions such as Glenelg Country School in Ellicott City.

With the two projects, Goodman said, "We have taken a giant step toward providing astronomy education for Howard County citizens of all ages."

The observatory will house the historic Watson telescope, a large, custom-made instrument that dates from the 1930s or 1940s.

The Newtonian telescope was made by Paul Watson, an astronomer and Johns Hopkins University professor, as the primary instrument for the astronomical research he did at his home on the Magothy River. After he died in the 1980s, his estate donated the telescope to a group called the Baltimore Astronomical Society.

The Howard Astronomical League was founded in 1999 as a spinoff of the Baltimore Astronomical Society and became the steward of the Watson telescope, which is 5 feet long and has a 12-inch aperture. The club's members set up portable telescopes at Alpha Ridge and other locations but have long wanted to build a permanent observatory where they can meet and share the Watson telescope with the public.

Goodman said the Watson telescope's optical and mechanical accuracy rivals the best telescopes made today. He said its large aperture and fine craftsmanship make it especially good for viewing the moon and other planets in the solar system. The said the instrument needs a permanent setting where it can be mounted properly and maintained. Group members have been storing the telescope in their homes.

"This is not something that you take out of a car," he said. "It's a beautiful telescope that any university would be proud to own. … We feel it's deserving of a home."

Howard County has designated land for the observatory as part of its master plan for the 72-acre park at 11685 Frederick Road. The park also has tennis courts, multipurpose fields and picnic pavilions.

Astronomers say Alpha Ridge is a good site for an observatory because it is a "dark sky" location away from city lights.

Goodman, who has a dentistry practice in Glenelg, said the observatory will be owned by the county but maintained by the league, which will retain ownership of the telescope. He said the league has raised sufficient funds to complete construction, including a $25,000 grant from the state legislature and matching funds in the form of in-kind goods and services. Total costs are expected between $50,000 and $60,000.

Plans by ARIUMae of Columbia call for the observatory to be made of concrete block covered with "HardiePlank" siding. It will be 30 feet long by 18 feet wide by about 23 feet high, including a fully automated fiberglass dome.

Besides space for the Watson telescope, the observatory will have a storage area for support equipment. One of its exterior walls will be used as a projection screen for educational presentations and for showing live images captured by the telescope. Columbia Engineering is the structural engineer. Both ARIUMae and Columbia donated design services, Goodman said.

While the observatory is under construction, Goodman said, a separate astronomy club, the Howard County Celestial Searchers, will offer programs for students in kindergarten through eighth grade at Bushy Park Elementary School and the Robinson Nature Center, 6692 Cedar Lane. More information about Celestial Searchers and the Howard Astronomical League is available on the league's website at

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