Estes Park Memorial Observatory

Estes Park Memorial ObservatoryWhile in Estes Park, Colorado, in July (2009), I had the pleasure of visiting the Estes Park Memorial Observatory. The observatory was founded by Mike and Carole Connolly in memory of their children Thomas and Christian Connolly who died July 2, 2005 in a traffic accident. The surviving daughter of the family, Michele Johnson, is a co-founder with her parents.

In anticipation of our trip, I contacted Mike to reserve some time at the observatory and asked if I might bring some camera equipment to use with the observatory’s 12″ Meade LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. He was enthusiastic about the idea.

Upon arriving in Estes Park, I “scoped out” the location, which is on the campus of the Park R-3 School District in Estes Park, near the lake. The weather forecast was not promising, but Mike assured me that it had been clearing off after sunset each night.

scope_smUnfortunately, the sky was overcast, with thunderstorms in the area. What clearing there might have been in the clouds would have been wasted on the lightening. The photo tells the story, with clouds visible through the dome’s aperture. This was our view for all three of the nights I was in town. Also visible in the image is the 16′ interior of the dome and stairway.

Mike, a retired aerospace engineer, was accompanied by Dr. Stephen Little, a retired astronomy prof. Both are avid volunteers for the observatory and promote its mission of providing astronomy education to the children of Estes Park. The facility is available to the public free of charge. Downstairs is a large well-equipped classroom and various offices and rooms for storing the growing collection of scopes and binoculars. The observatory now owns some fine pieces of equipment, due in large part to the donation of the extensive collection of a young man, by his parents, following his death. It truly is a memorial observatory.

After chatting awhile about the observatory and its founders, my father and I called it a night and I drove back the hotel empty handed. Mike had offered to meet again the following night. That next evening we were joined by Dr. Little and his wife, Dr. Irene Little-Marenin, also a retired astronomy professor. Another young couple was in attendance due to their interest in the observatory. We had a little better luck with some infrequent clear spots between the clouds, but the lightening threatened to ruin any long exposures. I connected my DSLR to the business end of the scope and set up my laptop. I was able to capture eleven 30 second exposures of M13, the globular cluster in Hercules, which provided a small demonstration to my curious audience.

Mike once again graciously offered the dome and met us for the third night, which looked very promising. At sunset the clouds vanished, leaving a glorious sky of bright stars and a very visible Milky Way. I had my target in sight: the North America Nebula high in the northern stream of the Milky Way. Mike was weary from a long day, but opened up the facility for us and explained how to lock up, and left for home. With the place at my disposal, I cranked up the camera and started a series of 10 five minute exposures. For this session, I had mounted my camera on the scope, using a 135mm lens to capture a wide field of view. I was delighted! The scope tracked well and my exposures were revealing the nebula in all its splendor. But, my excitement was short-lived. The fourth exposure was washed out, and looking up through the aperture of the doom, I saw clouds reappearing and moving across my target.

Even with the frustration of cloudy weather, I count my visit a grand success. It was worth it just to meet these folks and visit the observatory. I did come away with a couple of images worth keeping and new friends who now have some inspiration to do astrophotography on their own and teach it to the children who frequent the place. I’m pretty sure that it was not my expertise that might have impressed them, but the fact that someone with my limited skills and basic equipment can do astrophotography. I hope that on my next visit I see some great photos taken by the kids of Estes Park at that observatory. What a treasure!

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