Want the sun, the moon and the stars for free?
Not to worry. All are well within your reach at the Cameron Park Rotary Club Community Observatory at Folsom Lake College in Placerville.
And if even if you’ve been there before, there’s always more of the universe to explore.
Completed in 2006 in celebration of Rotary International’s 100th anniversary, the popular observatory annually attracts 6,500 visitors and features one 17-inch telescope and one 14-inch telescope with a color video camera along with an assortment of other star-gazing equipment.
Jason Brand, chief docent for the observatory, said on any given night they might have anywhere from zero to 160 people, but special events often attract more. “When we held a special solar event, almost 1,200 people attended over a five-hour period,” he said.
Besides what’s offered at the observatory, the docents also take what they know on the road, including a special solar scope they take to local schools for viewing. Brand said they have been doing so for four years with an estimated 9,000 people being able to safely view the sun using the scope.
“That is about 30 percent of our audience,” he said, adding that the first Saturday of every month, weather permitting, they also hold a solar viewing at the observatory from 10 a.m. to noon. “We look at the sun in different ways — sun spots, solar prominences. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen, when you see it yourself through a scope, it has an impact.”
Showing off their most recent acquisition, Brand uncovered a telescope that was purchased in 2012. It includes an Astro-Physics 1200 mount that when you punch in the right coordinates, points anywhere you want to go in the sky. Mounted on it is a 17-inch Planewave telescope that was paid for by money donated by Aerojet.
“It gathers a lot more light so you can see fainter objects and the optics are clear enough that it allows for scientific grade work such as spectroscopy, which is analyzing the spectrum of the stars,” said Brand. “It’s also a world-class scope in terms of its ability to do astrophotography.”
Brand said they have a second, smaller telescope that has a video camera in it that can see objects out to a distance of almost 300 million light years. “The older telescope gives us the deepest reach and brightest objects because of the video camera built into it. The newer one is for eyepiece viewing. With it we can see the fine details on Jupiter, Saturn, the moon and stars,” he said.
Asked how he became involved with the observatory, Brand laughed and said he’s a case of an “accidental docent.” He said he learned about the observatory from a neighbor and came down several times before he was invited to become a docent. Now in his fourth year as one, he said he was initially reluctant because he wasn’t sure he knew enough. “But you learn really quickly,” he said, “so even if you don’t know a lot about astronomy, but have an enthusiasm and passion, you probably have what it takes to be a docent.
“It’s really a fun organization and great group to work with,” he said. “The Rotary Club really did an outstanding job to make something like this happen.”
A mechanical engineer with the Intel Corp., Brand said some docents are like him and others have worked with NASA in collecting data with their own telescopes.
“One of our docents has discovered four asteroids and will be naming them,” he said. “We even have junior docents who can operate the scope. These kids are really sharp and can put you to shame with what they know.”
Asked about the appeal of the observatory, Brand said, “I think both adults and kids get a kick out of looking through the telescope, although usually older people appreciate it more. Many have always wanted to see this stuff, always been amazed by it, have watched a lot of things on TV, but never had the opportunity to look through a scope. And then when they see it for the first time — wow — they really come alive. It’s a real thrill.”
Brand said future plans include continuing programs at the observatory and using their Website and Facebook page to keep everyone up to date. They are also looking at some additions to the solar program and perhaps even a solar observing site with some solar imaging. Another idea is to introduce the public to astrophotography. We don’t do any here, at least nothing seriously, he said, but its popularity is growing.
For those wanting to visit the observatory, note that it is only open on weekends. During the winter, its hours are 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. During the summer, they are open 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Summer hours start April 1. The observatory is located on the north side of the college which is at 6699 Campus Drive, in Placerville.
Visiting the observatory is free, but donations are welcomed to support the maintenance of the facility and telescopes. People can get more information at the Website communityobservatory.com or on the Facebook page.
“It’s an observatory, it’s free and it’s available to the public during open hours,” said Brand. “There’s not a better deal or better set of entertainment in El Dorado County. The whole universe is available to you seasonally.”
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.