[February 2018] Observatory focuses on learning, space exploration within the Westport community

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Amelia Brown ’18

 

From the outside, it seems like an unsuspecting place. A white tin building tucked away behind the Westport Health District; the red light omitted from the door of Meadows Tower is the only hint that it contains a whole other world inside.

Multiple other worlds actually. Thousands, really. Located inside the tower, the Westport Astronomical Society’s (WAS) Rolnick Observatory is open every Wednesday from 8 to 10 p.m. to the public for planet, nebula and galaxy viewing when the skies are clear.

Cat Graham ’19, initially lured into going with the promise of snacks by a friend, said that she ended up learning a lot.  “My only complaint was that it was kind of late for a school night,” she said. “I would do it again.”

While the public “star parties” only happen once the sky is dark, volunteers and members are also attracted to the slew of other perks and activites that WAS has.

“I found out that if you’re a member for a year you get a key,” Shannon Calvert, an amateur astrophotographer and WAS Board Member, said, “and you can come whenever you want.”

The full time access to the telescope allows Calvert to set up his camera, go down to the “warm room,” a small building to de-thaw from the open dome, and sit back watching a movie while his camera automatcally captures photos of galaxies light years away. In addition, being a member for any duration means access to barbeques, solar events and special speakers.

Despite the numerous events and having the largest publicly accessible telescope in Connecticut, there is some difficulty drumming up interest in the observatory.

“We love having younger people here,” Calvert said, “but it’s hard because as soon as you get someone on the Board, they graduate and go off to college and are done.”

Graham noticed the lack of popularity as well, but stands by the value of going.

“Maybe there’s just less interest in space in general, which is a bummer, but I think that anyone who did have an interest would have a lot of fun,” she said.

However, the Astronomy class at Staples is trying to generate more interest, according to teacher Tori Wagner.

“It is crucial to have a hands-on viewing experience to even begin to grasp the wonders of our Universe,” Wagner said. “I’m very excited that Staples has such an amazing resource in the Westport Astronomical Society and their observatory.”

Not only does the observatory hope to dish out knowledge and fun, but WAS has a bigger goal in mind. “We believe that by exploring space, people can gain an understanding of themselves and their environment,” their website reads. “It helps people appreciate the special qualities of our planet and comprehend how rare an event our home, Earth, really is.”

The nature of the observatory, a non-profit volunteer run organization, also allows members and visitors to appreciate the work of the amateur astronomers.

“It’s all volunteer so it’s just people interested and that’s the best kind,” Calvert said. “They have a passion for it.”

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