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Sky Club hosts star parties from campus observatory

Physical Sciences Professor Paul McCudden, center, poses pre-pandemic with members of the CMC Sky Club at Ball Observatory on the campus of Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs. The group’s next star watching parties will be March 20 and April 10. (Photo courtesy of Colorado Mountain College)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The best star gazing moment student Jackson Lewer has experienced at the Ball Observatory at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs happened on a night when the wind turbulence in the Rocky Mountains was calm.

“That night you could see the Andromeda Galaxy made up of 1 trillion stars some 2.5 million light years away,” Lewer said. “It was pretty remarkable.”

Lewer, a senior at Steamboat Springs High School working concurrently on a CMC associate’s degree in science, serves as current president of the decade-old Sky Club on the college campus. The club helps students explore the science of astronomy as well as organizes campus and public events, including star parties at the observatory.



The campus facility is the only observatory with public access in Northwest Colorado, said Sky Club faculty sponsor Paul McCudden, a physical sciences associate professor at CMC. During star parties, anyone in the community can “learn about the wonders and mysteries of the universe and to explore our beautiful Colorado night sky in all its majesty,” McCudden said.

The next event will be a virtual Vernal Equinox edition for the first day of spring from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, with details found at coloradomtn.edu/skyclub. Up to 50 people, including some tuning in from other states, have been watching the club’s star parties during the pandemic.



Attendees for the online vernal equinox party this week can see enhanced images thanks to the college’s new Mallincam DS10C camera for live electronically assisted astronomy viewing. The equipment can take a 10- to 20-second exposure so viewers can see dimmer objects.

“You see things that your eye would never be able to see, because they are too dim, such as distant galaxies,” said McCudden, who noted the dark skies in Routt County assist star gazing.

If you go

What: Vernal Equinox Virtual Star Party

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, March 20

More information: coloradomtn.edu/skyclub

The star parties include short lessons designed to enlighten more people in the community, including those who may have amateur telescopes sitting idle at home.

Lewer said he became hooked on astronomy five years ago during a camping trip in southern Wyoming when a friend brought a large telescope to view Saturn.

“Saturn is definitely one of the prettiest things in the sky,” said Lewer, who hopes to earn a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Lewer said he was awed during a November 2019 campus star party viewing the rare occasion of Mercury in transit passing in front of the sun.

McCudden has been a professor of physics, astronomy and, sometimes, screenwriting at CMC for four years following many years teaching in Los Angeles. He hopes the quality community college observatory, valued at up to $100,000, will lead to more student research projects and scientific contributions to the astronomy world, such as astro-photography of binary stars.

The domed campus observatory, donated by the Ball family in fall 2019, is 10 feet in diameter, 9 feet tall at the top and can fit up to eight people inside during non-COVID times.

When pandemic restrictions are hopefully eased this summer, the Sky Club will offer public star parties with portable telescopes at local state parks, including at Pearl Lake on May 29 and at Steamboat Lake on July 10 and Aug. 13.

McCudden also will teach a three-night Steamboat Skies non-credit community class this summer through CMC. He also leads the Yampa Valley Astronomical Club for members of the general public. He can be reached at pmccudden@coloradomtn.edu.


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