Explore the night sky at Robert Ferguson Observatory in Kenwood
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.