Fort Wayne Astronomical Society’s new observatory awaits stargazers

StarQuest Fort Wayne

Fort Wayne Astronomical Society will hold a grand opening for its newly-completed Star*Quest Observatory on Saturday, May 20, at Jefferson Township Park east of New Haven. Festivities will start at 7 p.m. When the sky dims, the public will be treated to an evening of stargazing.

FWAS President Larry Clifford will welcome guests and project manager Gene Stringer will acknowledge donors and unveil a 3-by-6-foot Plexiglas plaque etched with stars along with the names of donors. A brief service of recognition will be conducted to honor deceased members Chris Highlen, Betty Jo Harper and Dennis Skala. The east wing of the building will be dedicated to Mrs. Harper and the west wing to Highlen.

Ribbon-cutting will be conducted by New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald, Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, representatives of Viridian Architectural Design and Robert Koors Custom Building and Design and the newly appointed observatory director, Mark Anderson.

Guests will then be invited into the observatory for a demonstration of the opening of the two roof wings and a tour of the viewing area and the control room. Refreshments will be served in a tent outside the building.

FWAS members have been working toward this moment for the past 10 years. They raised nearly $250,000 to build the state-of-the-art structure and officially took possession of it in late December. They then finished installing flooring, did the interior painting, added special red lighting to preserve night vision and completed the landscaping. It covers a total of 1,000 square feet and includes the observation area that runs the length of the building and a combination control room/office/library/storage space.

The observatory’s delta-wing roof that is opened by power winches. Half of it rolls off on exterior rails to the east and the other half rolls to the west, exposing stargazers to the vast southern sky in an open-air room. Each of the wings weighs between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds.

FWAS’s two powerful telescopes will be available for stargazing. The Meade 16-inch RCX 400 scope can swing 360 degrees to lock onto stars in deep space, locate nebula and maybe locate a comet or passing satellite. It can collect 6,000 times more light than the naked eye. The organization’s original 12.5-inch Harnishfegger-Crow scope will be available for viewing, as well. Scopes provided by Society members will be set up on five concrete pads at the south side of the observatory for public stargazing, weather permitting, of course, until midnight.

Stringer said FWAS will hold free stargazing sessions every Saturday night (weather permitting) through November. “There is no admission charge and guests are invited to bring their own telescopes,” he said. “We hope to eventually extend astronomy into local and area high schools and colleges and maybe even introduce it into the curriculum. Our goal is to someday have internet access so that students could remotely control our telescopes without even being present at the observatory.”

Star*Quest is handicapped-accessible and large enough to accommodate three or four telescopes.

FWAS, which is in its 59th year, operated an observatory at Fox Island County Park for 30 years before creeping light pollution and tall trees made observing the heavens difficult. Until the new facility, the organization had been operating out of a small storage shed at Jefferson Township Park for the past 20 years.

Jefferson Township Park, which is administered by the National Park Service, is at 1730 S. Webster Road, between 3 and 4 miles east of New Haven. Visitors to the open house should take Lincoln Highway east through New Haven. It changes to Dawkins Road on the east side. Follow it past Cassad Depot to Webster Road, turn left, cross the railroad tracks and the park will be about 100 yards on the left. Turn in and take the entry road all the way to the back of the park. Signs will point the way.

Doug LeDuc of Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly contributed to this report.