By Stacy Fisher
Photos by Stacy Fisher & Chico Community Observatory
Our ancestors gazed into the star-studded night sky and wondered, “How did everything come to be?” Until the advent of telescopic instruments of sufficient power, such as the 100-inch Hooker Telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory, where astronomers like Edwin Hubble, often lauded as the father of modern cosmology, discovered the universe was expanding in 1925, answering such basic questions seemed beyond our reach.
Although modest in size compared to scientifically important observatories found throughout the world, Chico can boast its own non-profit Chico Community Observatory, located on the outskirts of town.
After some repairs currently underway are complete, the community-based observatory will re-open to the public beginning in June for three hours after sunset, Friday through Sunday, until 11 p.m. in the spring and summer; and in winter from sunset until 9 p.m. Gates close afterward.
Built in the summer of 2001, the structure features a roof that slides open to reveal the stars of the Milky Way overhead. The observatory provides a place for people of all ages to observe the night sky and appreciate the wonderment of the cosmos, and to offer a way to learn something about our ancient origins.
The Chico observatory may not be equivalent to the Hubble Space Telescope in its power to unravel the universe’s deepest mysteries, but it is a place for guests to discuss many of the cosmic questions people may have with knowledgeable docents hosting each night’s observations.
Docents are typically avid amateur or professional educators with astronomical backgrounds, who volunteer to give talks on various astrophysical subjects. However, not all volunteers have a background in astronomy, says board member Evie Cameron and Chico Community Observatory docent. “There are plenty of activities that don’t require that. Plus volunteer docents learn a lot on the subject if they hang out with us.”
The mission of the organizers is to afford access to the universe, with visitors looking through its telescopes, particularly for the enjoyment and education of the youth in the Chico community as well as those beyond its borders.
“We have two permanently mounted, 14-inch, Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes that people can view through,
” Cameron says. These telescopes collect distant light, enabling viewers to sight faint objects such as nebulae, planets, distant stars and galaxies. Guests are welcome to bring their personal telescopes if they wish.
One of the observatory’s telescopes is hooked up to a computer so that groups of people can see celestial objects at the same time on a monitor.
“Other telescopes are available that docents own,” she adds, which they are happy to share depending on the number of people expected to show up.
Nightly events are open to kids, with younger children accompanied by a parent or under adult supervision. “We ask that children be accompanied by an adult,” requests Cameron. “We find that parents really enjoy sharing the learning experience with their kids.”
Students on field trips and church groups are invited to attend, as well as other organizations. The observatory is also interested in outreach programs for children. “We also go out to various organizations to do guest presentations,” she adds.
The observatory also opens for special events like lunar eclipses or for a highly anticipated comet crossing the night sky.
Weather permitting the observatory is open year ‘round. If rain is expected or it appears to be cloudy, “we make a decision early on in the day and post it on Facebook,” Cameron says. Be prepared to dress warmly in multiple layers in case the nights are cold.
Adjacent to the observatory is the outdoor “Shoemaker Open Sky Planetarium,” a large concrete-constructed amphitheater with plenty of seating. Docents discuss the constellations and other features of the night sky as part of their outdoor presentations.
With ample parking, the Chico Community Observatory is located near Horseshoe Lake at Chico’s Upper Bidwell Park (off Wildwood Ave.) 1 Observatory Way, Chico.
Although access to the observatory is free to the public, donations are appreciated. A small donations box is located just as you walk into the observatory by the guest book. Donations can also be mailed to: Chico Community Observatory, P.O. Box 4399, Chico, CA. 95926. Donations primarily go to maintenance of the building and for supplies.
Since humans first asked fundamental questions regarding our origins, we have sought answers through the millennia, often substituting mythologies to fill in our gaps in knowledge. “The observatory is something of a hidden gem,” enthuses Cameron, “where those who attend will see things they may never have seen before.”
No reservations are required to visit the observatory, she says. “Just show up and have a great time.” For information or questions about the Chico Community Observatory call: 530-487-4071. Email: [email protected] www.chicoobservatory.com. Facebook: www.facebook.com/ChicoCommunityObservatory.