SoVera observatory up and running on private land

By Shawn Cunningham

The observatory fully closed.

The observatory fully closed. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.
Click photo to launch gallery.

Ron Jackson was in good spirits despite the heavy cloud cover as he rolled back the roof  on his “new” observatory on a hill in Gassetts.  There wouldn’t be any stars visible, so he trained his Celestron “orange tube” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on a pine tree several hundred feet away and invited a visitor to take a look.  The tree’s needles looked close enough to touch and minute details of their structure were easily distinguished.

Ron Jackson begins to pull back the roof of the observatory that he took possession of after talks broke down between SoVera and the town of Chester on creating a public observatory at the Pinnacle.

Ron Jackson begins to pull back the roof of the observatory that he took possession of after talks broke down between SoVera and the town of Chester on creating a public observatory at the Pinnacle.

Looking like nothing more than a garden shed with an attached arbor, the observatory transformed in moments as Jackson released the locks that hold the roof in place and slid it off the “room” that houses the telescope. In minutes, Jackson was ready to begin observing. “I used to have to lug all the equipment, set it up and hang around to let everything cool down,” said Jackson referring to the need to have telescopes at the same temperature as the surrounding air to prevent heat waves that disturb the image.  fogging and condensation.

“Now we can be up and running in five minutes.”

Time crunch

Ron Jackson bought a 1978 telescope in the 1990s and now has a place to house it on his property in Gassetts.

Ron Jackson bought a 1978 telescope in the 1990s and now has a place to house it on his property in Gassetts.

The observatory was constructed by Al Bertin of Walpole, N.H., a World War II Air Corps navigator in the Pacific who used it for many years before offering it to the Southern Vermont Astronomy Group, a Chester based non-profit organized to promote astronomy education. SoVera offered the building to the town for installation at the Pinnacle, and further volunteered to conduct public observing as well as school programs.

The interior of the telescope.

The interior of the telescope.

In December of 2012, SoVera presented the idea to Chester’s Select Board, which expressed initial enthusiasm. Soon however members of  the board were backing away from the project with one calling it a “luxury service.” With the board unwilling to fund a portion of the installation cost, SoVera found itself in a scheduling crunch.  “Al needed to get it moved so he could get a firewood delivery,” said Jackson, “and if the town was not going to take it, SoVera had no place of its own to put” the observatory.

 Observatory then donated to Jackson

In the end,  Bertin gave the building to Jackson, a SoVera member who had a suitable place to set the building. (A Telegraph poll in March found overwhelming support for a public-private partnership to fund the observatory.)

“We moved it here in April,” said Jackson, “but the spring was so wet we couldn’t get it up the hill until June.” Installing skids on the building, Jackson and friends were able to tow the building up the hill, but some rot in the floor (later replaced) made it a delicate maneuver.

The roof of the observatory, donated by a gentleman from Walpole, N.H., easily slides back for viewing.

The roof of the observatory, donated by a gentleman from Walpole, N.H., easily slides back for viewing.

The building is  a temporary structure, but the telescope mount consisting of 900 pounds of concrete resting on ledge with an 8-inch sonotube sticking up is unshakeable and not connected to the observatory building.  This means that  a tap on the side of the telescope sends the image in the viewfinder into wild vibrations, but a person can jump up and down on the floor of the observatory without disturbing the image.

While SoVera can use the observatory for its programs, having the public on the site is another matter. Jackson was able to  install the building on a small budget because he did not have to comply with building regulations that govern public places. Liability is also an issue that may limit or prevent public use.

The observatory fully opened, with Ron Jackson peering out.

The observatory fully opened, with Ron Jackson peering out.

Claudio Veliz, a founder of SoVera, said that his group is  “leaving the door open to a reconsideration of a similar or even larger project to benefit the town.” Until then, the organization has made a telescope available to borrow from the Whiting Library.

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About the Author: Shawn Cunningham has written a number of subjects -- from food and wine to film, history, politics, zoning and development -- for the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, Museum News, The Westsider, The Chelsea/Clinton News, Menckeniana, Films in Review and the East Village Eye.

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