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Explore the night sky at Robert Ferguson Observatory in Kenwood

Visit the Robert Ferguson Observatory at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park for starry night events with a few pandemic-related changes.|

Upcoming Events at Robert Ferguson Observatory

Tuesday, Oct. 5: Autumn Night Sky Class Series. A six-class series which explores the solar system, the Milky Way and constellations. Tickets: $25 per session or $80 for the entire series. Starts at 7 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 9: Public Star Party/Night Sky Trails. Learn about the science and mythology behind constellations through laser guided tours. Tickets: $10 per adult, $5 for seniors, students and youth, 12 to 17. Ages under 12 are free. Starts at 7:30 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 15: In-person lecture with Alex Filippenko for “A New Surprise in the Accelerating Universe.” Listen to an astrophysicist talk about the mysterious, repulsive “dark energy” that is dominating the Universe and stretching space itself. Tickets: $31.20 - 59. Starts at 7 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 16: Public Star Party / International Observe the Moon night. In honor of International Observe the Moon night, the observatory is hosting a special star party with a focus on the moon. Tickets: $10 per adult, $5 for seniors, students and youth 12 to 17. Ages under 12 are free. Starts at 7:30 p.m.

Events may be modified on a case-by-case basis to comply with pandemic restrictions. Capacity is limited.

Guests must be vaccinated or show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. For more information, visit bit.ly/3APwdjP

On a recent weekday night inside a dark, open-roofed dome at Robert Ferguson Observatory, longtime volunteer David Kensiski turned a 40-inch-diameter telescope toward the first planetary nebula he discovered when he was 15 years old.

The ring nebula, which looks like a little white smoke ring in the sky, is one you can’t see with your naked eye. Only through a telescope can you examine the star that’s reached the end of its life after billions of years, its outer atmosphere now in the shape of a ring.

And, like astronomy, this nebula is pretty special to him.

“There’s sheer beauty in the stuff we can only see with a telescope” said Kensiski, board of directors at Robert Ferguson Observatory. “When you look through a telescope, it puts a whole different perspective on how fragile and unique our planet is in the universe.”

Inside the West Wing dome, I looked up at the sky through the wide-open roof, seeing bright pinpoints of stars illuminating the black expanse. A ballad of chirping crickets was the only thing to remind me of the world outside this small room I stood in with 10 others, in the dark.

I dragged a small white stepping stool up to the big telescope, stepped up and placed my right eye onto its eyepiece.

There it was — the ring nebula.

It was something I hadn’t seen before and only heard about in movies and read about in books. In that moment, away from the noise of the outside world, I could reflect, ponder and realize that there was more out there — much more beyond what I could ever imagine.

What’s new at the observatory?

Though the observatory in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park paused events in spring 2020 due to the pandemic shutdown, they resumed in June 2020 with a handful of changes such as limiting capacity, canceling the observatory’s indoor classes and lectures and putting in-person viewing at their 15 telescopes on hold.

However, in compliance with COVID-19 restrictions, the observatory’s staff also developed new events and combined existing outdoor events that visitors could still enjoy.

Those include Bring Your Own Binoculars and Chair. Visitors sit outside with their own binoculars and camping chairs and explore the night sky with a Ferguson volunteer pointing out highlights. There are also the Night Sky Trails event, which features laser-guided constellation tours, and an RFO Speaker Series, with science experts talking about a variety of astronomical topics on Zoom.

A new hybrid event emerged from the pandemic, too, combining activities from the Night Sky Trails event and the Public Star Party, which normally features an astronomical lesson in a classroom followed by a period where visitors can peek into three of the observatory’s main telescopes.

Instead, during the hybrid event, at the observatory’s parking lot, six docents with small telescopes and green lasers will point to the sky and teach the science and mythology behind constellations. Then visitors can rotate and move onto exploring the observatory’s three main telescopes.

“Ancient Greeks didn’t have Netflix back then,” Kensiski said, laughing. “They turned to mythology for stories and entertainment. It’s interesting how past civilizations interpreted these constellations. It puts a human touch on it. It’s a lot of fun.”

As visitors rotate through the room, they can look through three telescopes — an 8-inch refractor telescope, which lets you see bright objects like the moon, double stars and globular clusters; the 40-inch reflector telescope in the West Wing for dimmer objects like distant galaxies and nebula; and, in the East Wing, a 20-inch reflector telescope with a camera that can project images of night sky objects onto a screen for visitors to see.

The event’s capacity is limited to 80 people. And only 12 to 15 visitors are allowed at a time for each telescope, the observatory’s staff said.

Normally, the Public Star Party event draws in nearly 400 people each time, Kensiski said.

In October, they’re bringing back in-person programs that are normally held inside the observatory, including the Public Star Party’s astronomy presentations and Night Sky classes, which teach people about the solar system.

And, after a short hiatus, all telescopes are officially returning for public viewing.

Amateur astronomer inspires

Robert Ferguson, the man who inspired the creation of the observatory, was known as an avid amateur astronomer who often shared his enthusiasm for stars and planets with everyone around him.

His enthusiasm sparked an idea for a community observatory which was spearheaded by members of the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association in 1995.

It received support from the state of California, given that the observatory would increase park visitation at Sugarloaf. This encouraged the beginning of its construction.

By 1997, with the help of community volunteers, the observatory’s West Wing, which now houses the 40-inch reflector telescope, was completed.

Six years later, the observatory, which is home to amateur astronomers and star gazers alike, was officially built.

The 40-inch reflector telescope in the West Wing was made piece by piece by four passionate docent volunteers. It took 10 years to make and officially opened to the public in January 2016.

Passionate about the night sky

Kensiski, a volunteer of nine years, is one of nearly 150 docents at the observatory who dedicate their free time to educating curious visitors about the deep mysteries of the night sky.

These docents wear several hats as they operate telescopes, greet visitors, give lectures and describe to visitors the planets and galaxies they see when peering into a telescope.

Kensiski, a Google engineer by day and a star-loving volunteer by night, considers the observatory a place he can call home.

“You can put your eye to the telescope and your worries fade away behind you,” he said. “There’s nothing like it.”

But this beloved hobby means more to him than simply viewing stars.

His father, who died when Kensiski was 12, was a longtime member of the Sacramento Valley Astronomical Society.

When he inherited his father’s 6-inch reflector telescope, his interest in astronomy grew. He later decided to volunteer at the observatory in 2012. Now, he considers his father one of the driving forces for keeping his hobby going.

“Volunteering at the observatory keeps my dad’s memory alive,” Kensiski said.

Another docent, awed by astronomy ever since Neil Armstrong first landed on the moon in 1969, found that her imagination could run free while she volunteered at the observatory.

“There’s more out there,” said Mary Schleberl, a docent since 2019. “It’s like your imagination can become real. We don’t have to wish upon stars — we can go there.”

Schleberl, of Santa Rosa, started docent training in December of 2019 with her husband after they became empty nesters. She decided that with her love for science and learning, the observatory would be a great place to spend her free time. Now, the star-loving couple spends nearly every night volunteering their time to help at the observatory.

“I love learning and trying new things,” Schleberl said. “The ability to operate the telescopes and give others the opportunity to learn is something special.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at mya.constantino@pressdemocrat.com. @searchingformya on Twitter.

Upcoming Events at Robert Ferguson Observatory

Tuesday, Oct. 5: Autumn Night Sky Class Series. A six-class series which explores the solar system, the Milky Way and constellations. Tickets: $25 per session or $80 for the entire series. Starts at 7 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 9: Public Star Party/Night Sky Trails. Learn about the science and mythology behind constellations through laser guided tours. Tickets: $10 per adult, $5 for seniors, students and youth, 12 to 17. Ages under 12 are free. Starts at 7:30 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 15: In-person lecture with Alex Filippenko for “A New Surprise in the Accelerating Universe.” Listen to an astrophysicist talk about the mysterious, repulsive “dark energy” that is dominating the Universe and stretching space itself. Tickets: $31.20 - 59. Starts at 7 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 16: Public Star Party / International Observe the Moon night. In honor of International Observe the Moon night, the observatory is hosting a special star party with a focus on the moon. Tickets: $10 per adult, $5 for seniors, students and youth 12 to 17. Ages under 12 are free. Starts at 7:30 p.m.

Events may be modified on a case-by-case basis to comply with pandemic restrictions. Capacity is limited.

Guests must be vaccinated or show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. For more information, visit bit.ly/3APwdjP

Mya Constantino

Features reporter

Stories can inspire you, make you laugh, cry and sometimes, heal. I love a feature story that can encapsulate all of those things. I cover the interesting people that exist around us, art and music that move us and the hidden gems that make Sonoma County pretty cool. Let's explore those things together.

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