With its new observatory, Colorado Mountain College is looking to the stars | SteamboatToday.com

With its new observatory, Colorado Mountain College is looking to the stars

Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs students and Sky Club members Jackson Lewer, left, and Brandon Wagner look at the telescope inside the brand new Ball Observatory at the college's campus.
Eleanor C. Hasenbeck

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Steamboat Springs has a new way to look to the skies: the recently installed Ball Observatory at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs.

Local stargazers Bob and Ann Ball donated the telescope and the dome it’s housed in to the college this year. The Balls always intended to give the observatory to the college, Bob said. The Balls are moving to Fort Collins, and with the impending move, the time was right to donate the observatory that sat on top of their home near Emerald Mountain.

“I think the dome and the equipment will get a great deal more use up here at Colorado Mountain College than it ever got at our house, and we’re really pleased that it just worked out that we could donate it to all in the college,” Bob said.  

About 100 people gathered on the southern bend of the college’s parking lot for a ceremony dedicating the observatory last week, where they received quick tours of the telescope and enjoyed space-themed snacks, including Moon Pies, Milky Ways and Starbursts.

At the ceremony, Bob described his and Ann’s passion for the skies, telling tales of chasing totality in solar eclipses and stargazing in the pitch darkness outside of the rural eastern Nevada town he grew up in.

From the outside, the Ball Observatory looks like a seven-foot-tall, white dome sitting near the college’s upper parking lot. A slide in the top opens up to allow stargazers to look to the skies. The Ball’s Celestron Schmidt–Cassegrain telescope has an 11-inch mirror, and for readers who might not be so starry-eyed, CMC Physical Sciences Professor Paul McCudden said it’s “a pretty good-sized amateur telescope.”

“This is a dream come true for me,” McCudden said. “Ever since I was a kid crunching through the snow in my backyard in Chicago with my little three-inch refractor, looking at the Orion Nebula, I’ve always wanted a bigger telescope with a nice home. This is a thrill for me, but it’s also a dream come true for the students here.”

“You now have top-notch equipment and facilities to study astronomy,” McCudden told his students in the audience at the dedication ceremony. “This is the best facility you will find at a community college just about anywhere.”

If you go

What: Star Party to watch transit of Mercury across the sun
When:  Sunrise to 11 a.m Nov. 11
Where: Ball Observatory at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat, 1275 Crawford Ave.

In addition to the telescope and observatory, the Balls donated a number of eyepieces and cameras, which can be used to in different light to see different phenomena.

McCudden anticipates that his astronomy courses will use the telescope weekly in class, and Sky Club students could use it even more frequently depending on how enthusiastic they are.

McCudden and members of the college’s Sky Club said they plan to open the observatory to the public once a month, usually a weekend around the new moon, and they want you there.

“We have all this equipment, but it doesn’t do any good to just sit here,” said CMC student and Sky Club member Carson Compos. “This is for everyone to experience.”

“I love when people come and check it out,” Jerome Brazeal, Sky Club president added.

“Yeah, it’s boring when we do star parties, and no one shows up, and it’s just us,” finished Lucas Gumbiner, Sky Club vice president. 

The first star party with the new telescope will be on Nov. 11. From sunrise to 11 a.m., the Ball Observatory will use solar filters to view the transit of Mercury across the sun, which is the first time this has occurred since 2016, according to a CMC news release.

Bob Ball, left, and Colorado Mountain College physical sciences faculty member Paul McCudden look over the Celestron telescope housed inside the Ball Observatory. Ball and his wife Ann donated the observatory, telescope and software to the college, which the Steamboat campus dedicated at a ceremony Sept. 10, 2019.
Courtesy Stephanie Stockin/Colorado Mountain College

In addition to star parties, McCudden said he plans to resurrect the Yampa Valley Astronomy Society, a now-defunct organization that met regularly and hosted astronomic events. He asked anyone who was once involved or is interested in being involved to contact him.

There are still some details to work out to get the telescope working. The telescope’s software allows it to be controlled remotely, but it needs an internet hookup first. McCudden and others are working to get the scope online. The other item ion the to-do list is aligning the telescope to the north star, which requires a few more clear, starry nights.  

“We actually could use the help of people in the community who know a little bit about telescopes to help us get it up and running,” McCudden said. Sean Walsh, Native Excavating and Central Electric donated materials and labor to install the observatory.

Eventually, McCudden hopes to obtain a camera attachment that would allow the college to broadcast a live image from the telescope’s eyepiece to a screen, which would allow them to have star parties in the auditorium.

“I’m just grateful and excited that the whole community can experience this,” McCudden said. “It belongs to everybody, so I encourage people in the community, if they want to learn more, to send me an email, give me a phone call, come to one of our events and learn more about it and use it, because it belongs to everybody, not to me or even to the college, so enjoy it.”

McCudden can be reached at 970-870-4537 or pmccudden@colorodomtn.edu.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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