Working in physics: Astronomy for all

Showing members of the public the wonders of the universe is one of the best things about being an astronomer - and retirement can lead to even more outreach opportunities, as Stephen and Irene Little explain.

Stephen and Irene Little

Most people’s reaction to their first view of Saturn through a telescope is simply “Wow!”. This is true whether they are five years old or heading into their ninth decade. As professional astronomers for 25 years, first at Wellesley and Bentley College in Massachusetts and then at the University of Colorado, we found that experiencing this sense of wonder through the eyes of others was one of the best parts of the job. So when we retired in 1990, it seemed natural for us to continue communicating our enthusiasm about the universe to the public. The only question was: how?

When we retired, we moved to Estes Park, Colorado, a town of about 6000 people located 70 miles northwest of Denver. Estes Park is a good place for astronomy. It is at an altitude of 2300m and is located right on the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park, which boasts some of the darkest skies in the region. So when a friend who worked in the park’s administration department asked us for help in setting up an astronomy observing programme in the park, we were more than willing to oblige.

Getting started
In our first year, we had just two old, rickety 15cm-diameter telescopes that had been donated to the park years earlier. Telescopes of that vintage do not track well, and even a breeze or a “nose bump” can knock them off the celestial object at which they are pointed. It would often take us up to 10 minutes to re-find fainter objects, with a group of impatient people watching our every move.

But by the third summer, we were better prepared, having applied for and received a $20,000 grant from a local private foundation. This grant allowed us to buy four “go to” telescopes, which have built-in computers with the co-ordinates of thousands of stars, galaxies and nebulae. Telescopes of this type are really easy to use - you just select an object and the telescope will “go to” it automatically. We were also able to build concrete bases for the telescopes; purchase accessories like steel piers, eyepieces, star charts, books and a portable power supply; and establish the observing programme that we still use today.

The park programme meets twice a month during the summer in a remote picnic area and sessions start at dusk. During dark nights, we observe fainter objects such as the Ring Nebula, star clusters like the globular cluster in Hercules, and galaxies like the Whirlpool Galaxy. Moonlit nights feature the Moon’s craters, mountains and maria (seas), plus any visible planets and double stars such as Alberio, the eye of Cygnus the swan. For many visitors, this is their first experience of looking through a telescope and learning about the constellations. They are astonished to learn that stars have colour, that Saturn has easily seen rings, that Jupiter’s Galilean moons line up perfectly with its equator and cloud bands, that stars in clusters are millions to billions of years old, and that the light that reaches our eyes left the galaxies millions of years ago.

On a good, clear night we can get up to 100-150 people attending, including a dozen amateur astronomers who regularly bring telescopes ranging in diameter from 7.6-63.5cm. The only downside to having so many attendees is that parking is a real problem, and people who leave with their car lights switched on destroy the dark adaptation of our eyes.

Building a community
Once started, projects like the park’s observing programme have a life of their own, are relatively easy to maintain, and offer tremendous benefits. However, the people who participate in these events are mostly park visitors, who come from all over the US and beyond, and are just passing through. This makes it hard to help them explore their new-found astronomical interest further, or to build up a coherent local community of astronomers.

With this in mind, in 2006 we joined a dedicated cadre of local amateurs to form the Estes Valley Astronomical Society. Thanks to a series of articles about astronomy and the club in the local press (and the efforts of one particularly enthusiastic amateur astronomer) the society has grown to some 40 members. Over half of them bring their families along to our monthly meetings and observing sessions.

One big factor in the society’s growth has been the construction of a dedicated observing facility, the Estes Park Memorial Observatory, which was completed in 2009. Built with private funds on the grounds of a local school, the building owes its existence to a tragedy: two of the principal donor’s three children were killed in a single motorcycle accident. The observatory is dedicated to their memory. The observatory’s facilities include a 30.5cm telescope (housed in a 4.9m dome) and a large room for presentations. It offers solar-observing capabilities as well, so students can attend during the daytime - either as part of the formal astronomy courses offered to high-school pupils, or with the astronomy club for younger children.

Beyond the school, the wider Estes Park community has also embraced the new facility. At the grand opening last April, more than 400 people came to see the observatory. To build on this success, we offered twice-monthly “open house” nights during the summer of 2009, in addition to the club’s regular meetings. A typical open-house session starts with an introduction to the observatory, followed by observing with the telescope in the dome. Weather permitting, we also set up some of the 10 or more small telescopes that have been donated to us by members of the Estes Park community. While some people look through the telescopes, we and our fellow volunteers show others the constellations - a bright green laser pointer works amazingly well for this. Saturn and Jupiter are usually the main prizes for those observing - although of course astronomers (both amateurs and professionals) really dote on the faint, fuzzy objects like nebulae, clusters and galaxies, since these show what the universe is all about.

We are continuing these open-house sessions during the winter, and we will see how many people are willing to brave the cold to see the stars. January temperatures here range from a bitter -25 deg C to a relatively balmy 15 deg C, and the dome must be kept in equilibrium with the outside temperature to keep air currents (and hence twinkling) under control. Fortunately, we have a heated room where people can warm up, and if the skies do not co-operate (as happened quite often in 2009), then we can show a video there on some topic of astronomical interest.

Back in the classroom
As a consequence of these various programmes, we have garnered a following of people that want to discover more about the universe, to learn about constellations and be able to look through telescopes. In the spring of 2009 we decided to teach an elementary astronomy course through the local school system’s adult-education programme. This four-week course consisted of a two-hour lecture, followed by observing, for one night each week. Places filled up immediately and we had a waiting list, as did a second course offered in the autumn of 2009 - this time the waiting list was even longer. We will offer the course yet again in the spring of 2010, and by popular request, we will also be teaching a follow-up course on black holes, supernovae and other exotic wonders of the universe.

If you had asked us two decades ago what we planned to do when we retired, “reading” and “hiking” would have featured higher on our list than astronomy outreach. We never anticipated the extent of volunteer work that we do in our community, and we have encountered a few difficulties (including persuading other people to do things we think need to be done). Still, the work is full of rewards from people who express their appreciation of what we offer, and we are glad we have been able to carry the banner of astronomy to Estes Park.

Tips on setting up an astronomy club

  • Most important: find a dedicated, energetic, enthusiastic group of amateurs. The group can be as small as three or four people
  • Identify people who will be willing to serve on the board of the group, who have telescopes or good binoculars, or who know the sky well enough that they can point out constellations and find fainter objects
  • Find a location to meet. Having a place where people can warm up is wonderful. Even during our summer programmes, we tend to lose over half the people with children because they are not dressed warmly enough
  • Develop a programme to bring in more people. In addition to observing, host lectures on recent astronomical discoveries and accessible topics like “calendars and time” and “2012”

Tips on setting up an observatory

  • Most important: identify a funding source and volunteers- including builders, electricians and labourers - who can help with the actual construction of the observatory
  • Find a location for the building. Schools are an excellent place to start; if you offer students the chance to use the observatory for special events, then the school is more likely to allow you to use its site, and may even pay for part of the upkeep
  • Make it available to the community so that local residents will “buy into” the facility and help support it
  • Develop a cadre of volunteers that can run the telescopes and help with “open house” sessions

About the author
Stephen and Irene Little are retired astronomers based in Estes Park, Colorado, email

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Physics World

last edited: August 06, 2012

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