If the Supermoon that occurred last weekend had you looking up at the sky with interest and curiosity, you may want to make note of the public stargazing schedule offered by the Eastern Missouri Dark Sky Observers (EMDSO) astronomy club.
The group of amateur astronomers has a new observatory housing its large telescope with a 30-inch diameter mirror located at Cedar Creek Conference Center, just west of New Haven.
The Big Blue Observatory is easy to access and can accommodate groups as large as 100 people (with advanced reservations).
In addition to the public viewing schedule, the EMDSO will conduct viewings by appointment for anyone who is interested. Members are currently reaching out to area schools, Scout groups and churches to let them know about the new location and encourage them to come out for a viewing.
There are currently no entry fees for public and group events at Big Blue Observatory, said Schwentker, but donations are welcome to help cover expenses, such as liability and property insurance, maintenance costs and improvements.
What You’ll See
The night sky is always changing throughout the year so you will see different constellations, planets and deep space objects during different seasons of the year, said Schwentker.
Earth’s Moon cycles through all of its phases roughly in a month’s time. The best deep-sky viewing is during low moon brightness, Schwentker noted.
“Several times per year, passing comets are visible,” he said. “Meteor showers appear like clockwork during the year when the Earth orbits through past comet’s debris field it has left in space.
“Man-made satellites are visible every night, and satellites designed to improve internet access, communication and GPS tracking are getting more numerous,” he said.
“Occasionally, obsolete satellites and near earth meteoroids/asteroids will fall from the sky burning up as fireballs, such as the one experienced in this area recently,” said Schwentker.
Other noteworthy objects that the EMDSO members can provide commentary on include the Orion Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, the colors of the bands on Jupiter, the polar ice cap of Mars, Saturn’s rings or the amazing detail of the craters and mare of Earth’s Moon.
An Outreach, Education Club
The Big Blue Observatory at Cedar Creek was built primarily with funding from one generous donor who wants to remain anonymous with additional donations from individuals, local businesses and institutions.
The telescope and observatory are owned and operated by the EMDSO, a nonprofit group whose primary purpose is outreach and education.
EMDSO conducts informative presentations and stargazing events (weather permitting) for community/civic betterment groups, school groups, youth organizations and the general public.
From March to October, members provide telescope viewing on the third Saturday starting at dusk at East Central College in Union and at the new Big Blue Observatory at Cedar Creek.
“Our astronomy club works closely with the Scenic Regional Library System and Washington Public Library to provide training and telescope maintenance for their telescope loaner programs at each branch,” said Schwentker.
In 2017, EMDSO members consulted with the Washington Area Chamber of Commerce to develop a set of astronomy exhibits for the 2017 Great American Eclipse and provided astronomy expertise during the event.
There are currently 15 members in the EMDSO. They hail from Marthasville, Washington, New Haven, Hermann, Eureka, St. Louis and Villa Ridge.
Membership is open to anyone who shares an interest in astronomy or would like to develop their interest and abilities in astronomy, said Schwentker. No experience in astronomy is required. Dues are $24/year.
In the near future, EMDSO is slated to raise funds to replace the domed observatory at East Central College, which EMDSO built in 1997, with another structure featuring a commercially made dome and a 12-inch computer controlled telescope, both of which were donated to the club.
Success will depend on acquisition of grants, possible fundraising activities and minimizing costs of construction so it can be built within a reasonable timeline.
History of Big Blue
The Big Blue telescope was originally purchased by a group of local amateur astronomer/investors from a group in New York state in the summer of 1996.
After several years, that group sold it to another group of local astronomers, including the late Pat McDonald, on whose property west of New Haven they placed the telescope.
McDonald designed the observatory featuring a 24-foot deck with two parallel rails that straddled a massive central concrete pier supporting the large telescope and a deck extension, said Schwentker.
A telescope shelter was built, mounted on wheel/rail system so the building could be rolled off the deck onto the extension, exposing the telescope for use.
Over the span of 15 years, some 3,300 visitors came to the Big Blue Observatory on the McDonald property. Among them were John Dobson, a famous amateur astronomer and telescope mount designer, who visited Big Blue in 2002.
The site also was featured in the Rural Missouri November 2002 publication of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives.
In some ways, McDonald’s property made for an ideal location, said Schwentker. It was secluded and had a high elevation. But it wasn’t easily accessible to the public.
“Maintenance of the access road was a nightmare,” said Schwentker, explaining that multiple loads of rock were required every few years to counteract extreme rut forming erosion, and intensive labor was needed to spread the rock.
After McDonald passed away in 2015, ownership of the telescope and observatory passed to the EMDSO. The observatory was dismantled in the summer of 2017, with much of the material being saved so it could be rebuilt at a new location.
‘Big Blue 2.0’
Bob Vatterott, manager at Cedar Creek Conference Center in New Haven, said he was surprised when the EMDSO approached him with an idea to rebuild the Big Blue Observatory on the property.
But after going over the details, he realized it would be a good fit.
“It became clear to us that it would be a great amenity for the people who come to visit us, as well as a draw that might help the business that we’re in — lodging and entertainment,” said Vatterott.
The two entered into an agreement with EMDSO signing a 10-year lease with Cedar Creek, and Cedar Creek also provided some help with the development of the site. It did much of the excavating work, poured concrete and laid a flagstone walkway.
“They don’t have a lot of funding, so we wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to establish it,” said Vatterott, adding he’s pleased with the finished design.
“They really did a nice job on that facility,” he said. “It’s a beautiful piece of equipment.”
Schwentker noted that members made a few modifications and improvements to the observatory, but for the most part it is the same as it was on McDonald’s property.
“This is version 2.0,” he said with a laugh. “We took all of the decking from up there, saved it and reconditioned it. That saved us a lot of money.”
“The only thing that’s new is the siding,” said Randy Schwentker, another EMDSO member.
The members, who come from all walks of life, did most of the work themselves. One member, Ray Mueller, is a retired electrician, so he was able to do all of the necessary electrical work.
For some things, Rick Schwentker, who is retired from the Washington School District, turned to his contacts with the Four Rivers Career Center building trades and welding programs for help.
Finishing touches are still being added. Artists from Astral Glass in Downtown New Haven have agreed to design stepping stones for the flagstone walkway that depict astronomy-related things. The first, however, will be a memorial to McDonald, said Schwentker.
If You Go . . .
Dress appropriately, bring a flashlight and bug spray in season. Also park at the south end of Cedar Creek’s long parking lot and follow the rock road at the lot’s south end approximately 300 feet to Big Blue’s deck.
If handicapped or unable to walk the road, access and limited parking is available at the observatory.
Stargazing events are canceled if cloudy or inclement weather.
No pets, alcohol or firearms are allowed on site.
The facility is partially handicapped-accessible with a handicapped level access. In the future, members hope to add an additional telescope that would display images on a deck mounted laptop and a handicapped-accessible portable restroom.
Groups of 15 to 100-plus attendees can reserve Big Blue Observatory for a private event. Reservations are required well in advance to ensure facility access and staffing.
No expertise in astronomy is required to enjoy the observatory.
“Amateur astronomers will always be available to operate the telescope(s) and be your tour guide, navigating and offering explanation of the wonders of our solar system, galaxy and universe,” said Schwentker.
Big Blue Observatory at Cedar Creek Conference Center is located at 1401 Olive Road, New Haven. For more information, visit EMDSO.org.
Public Star-Gazing Schedule
Following is a list of public star-gazing events that EMDSO will hold at the Big Blue Observatory at Cedar Creek Conference Center.
Events start at dusk.
Most Friday evenings, Cedar Creek serves a buffet dinner. No reservations are necessary.
March 20, 21 and 27
April 17, 24 and 25;
May 15, 22 and 23;
June 13, 14 and 19;
July 11, 19 and 24;
Aug. 14, 21 and 23;
Sept. 11, 12 and 18;
Oct. 9, 11 and 16;
Nov. 14, 15 and 20;
Dec. 11, 12 and 19.