Astronomy/Space
6:47 pm
Mon May 12, 2014

Desert Telescope To Let Kalamazoo Astronomers Stargaze Year Round

Kalamazoo Astronomical Society President Richard Bell shows some of the photos taken from the Arizona Sky Village during a presentation in April.
Kalamazoo Astronomical Society President Richard Bell shows some of the photos taken from the Arizona Sky Village during a presentation in April.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

UPDATE: Thanks to an Irving S. Gilmore Foundation grant, the Kalamazoo Astronomical Society has now funded 88 percent of the project.

The Kalamazoo Astronomical Society is raising money for a robotic telescope that will broadcast images of the night sky from one of the best star gazing sites in the country. 

The Arizona Sky Village lies about 2.5 hours east of Tucson. It has strict light regulations and about 350 clear nights a year. KAS President Richard Bell says Michigan only gets about 70 clear nights.

During his presentation, Bell said the drier air in Arizona means the sky will always be more transparent. 

Members of the Kalamazoo Astronomical Society gather round to check out their latest purchase, a $13,000 telescope mount
Members of the Kalamazoo Astronomical Society gather round to check out their latest purchase, a $13,000 telescope mount
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

“So their best night will always outdo our best night. And we’ve had some pretty good nights here but nothing compared to what you can get out there," Bell says.

"And of course, you can try to set up at a lower latitude and you can begin to observe objects you just simply can’t see from Michigan.”

For years, KAS member Mike Patton couldn’t enjoy astronomy because he worked the early shift at his previous job.

So when Patton built a retirement home at the Sky Village, he decided to give the club a spot in the observatory.

“Because it’s such a remote area, I would miss the social aspect. You know, like the star parties where there’s people around. So I made it available to this club," he says. "And it was a win-win for both of us because I get to use their expertise for my projects and they get a pretty good cost of entry dark sky sight for their project. So they complement each other.”

The telescope will allow the club to star gaze just about anywhere with high speed internet. It connects to a camera that sends high quality snapshots to members over the Web. Astronomers could even watch the stars sitting at home in their pajamas.

“We’re going to be able to offer 12 months of public observing now. This is huge for us,” says KAS member Jean DeMott.

DeMott sold plants for years to raise money for the project.

“We’ll be able to draw in more public and offer them a very comfortable night of star gazing,” she says.

That’s right, some of the public will get to use it too. Amateur astronomers can rent the remote feed. Bell says the KAS also plans to let students from area colleges use it for free.

“Amateurs still discover comets from time to time. They can track down asteroids. It’s actually a lot easier than you think it is. Even today with all the automated surveys, amateurs can still discover asteroids. Maybe some student can discover the one that’s going to kill us all one day,” Bell says jokingly.

Bell says the telescope can produce beautiful photos of galaxies and nebulas that could be turned into an art exhibit.

Of course, all of this doesn’t come cheap. The total price of the equipment will cost about $100,000 dollars. Bell says it’s expensive, but it’ll be worth it.

“My goal is, is to have premium equipment for a premium site," he says. "And I want to get equipment that none of us could ever have a chance of owning on our own.”

The Astronomical Society has raised about 65 percent of the money for project. It plans to get the rest through grants and raising member fees.

To some, being an astronomer in Michigan may seem like an exercise in masochism. But Jean DeMott says the KAS is more like a group of friends willing to discuss their love of astronomy, rain or shine.

“We have so many cloudy nights, but I think it’s created a very hardy group of people who are very focused," she says. "And there’s a very large social element here which you don’t have where the skies are more favorable.”