A Private Observatory Reaches Out (September 2008)
Things seldom turn out quite how I plan them. Sometimes they turn out better! Happily for me, John Crossen, that was the case with Buckhorn Observatory (BHO) in the Ontario area of Canada. Originally built in 2000 to further my retirement pursuit of astrophotography, BHO quickly became a drop-in centre for local astronomy enthusiasts and during the summer, tourists to the Kawartha Lakes area.
I quickly discovered that it was more fun telling people about astronomy and showing them celestial targets through my telescopes than it was sitting alone guiding an astrophoto for hours. So one year and only two exposed rolls of film later, Buckhorn Observatory became an "impromptu" education/outreach centre. Since then the observatory has acquired a portable planetarium which makes for an exciting astronomy presentation with schools, scout groups and the annual Astronomy Day outing of the Peterborough Astronomical Association. Because most of my work with schools takes place during the daylight hours, I purchased a Baader white light solar filter and a portable refractor telescope for the outdoor portion of my daytime astro-presentations.
The younger students are quite fascinated and surprised by the link between sunspots and the aurora. Their eyes widen even further when they learn that the Sun is a million times larger than Earth. I'm especially fond of asking them to imagine the Sun as a giant Halloween pumpkin that if you hollowed it out, there would be room inside to place for the Earth and the Moon to orbit it without touching the inside walls of the giant pumpkin. With the older students, I touch on nuclear fusion and the internal temperature of our Sun. Once again, the wow factor peaks. I also explain how our dependence on sophisticated electronic technologies has put us at the Sun's mercy should a large solar storm erupt. They are interested in the fact that this situation has created some exciting new career possibilities related to space weather prediction. Astronomy, I tell them, isn't just for night owls.
To help defray costs, BHO charges a small amount to observatory visitors. But rest assured, it would cost a family of four more for a fast-food "squat-n-gobble" than for our food for thought. I deal with schools and civic groups on a "pay-what-you-can-afford" basis and have even worked for coffee gift certificates in the past. BHO also refurbishes old "pea-shooter scopes" and gives them to schools and camps. My real payback comes from the reaction of the students - their enthusiasm, amazed "wow" exclamations and the endless questions. Buckhorn Observatory also receives support from local merchants who somehow find space for our promotional rack cards during the tourist season. The resort community also helps promote a "road-show" version of our telescope presentation during the bright-Moon days of the summer months. As well, SkyNews Magazine, Canada's premier astronomy publication, has been very helpful in helping to fill the "goodie bags" all visitors to BHO receive after a night under the stars. Buckhorn Observatory is just 45 minutes north of Peterborough, Ontario. Fortunately, we are deep enough into cottage country that light pollution is not a major issue - yet. Our main telescope is a computerized Celestron NexStar housed in a 16x20-foot roll-off roof observatory of my own design. (Readers can find similar DIY designs by Googling-up "backyard observatories" on the Internet.) Recently, we have also put up a small domed observatory that is home to a refracting telescope.
BHO averages about 500 visitors a year, most of whom are cottagers during the summer months. We are open year 'round, but when the weather hits - attendance drops to zero. I wish I'd started teaching basic astronomy ten years earlier. I never knew retirement could be so rewarding - or so busy. For a closer look at BHO, visit our website at: www.buckhornobservatory.com.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR ACTIVITIES: If you use our SOHO images or movies, provide outreach and programs in the area of solar study, and would like to be considered for our Outreach Spotlight section, write to steele.hill[at]gsfc.nasa.gov with a brief overview of your efforts.If we think you'd make a good candidate, we will contact you.