College, Community Create Jack C. Davis Observatory

A rainbow stretches across the campus of Western Nevada Community College.

A rainbow stretches across the campus of Western Nevada Community College.

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What was once just a wish upon a star is now a dream come true. WNCC has opened a $1.4 million observatory at its Carson City campus.

The "First Light" grand opening celebration of the Jack C. Davis Observatory in May 2003 began with a perfectly-timed full lunar eclipse and a visit from Apollo XI astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a lecture by an internationally renowned astrophysicist, and tours.

The observatory is open to the public and provides a research-level facility for WNCC students. It is an integral part of the college's expanding astronomy class offerings and affords a unique partnership with area schools. Students from kindergarten through college will be able to use the observatory, both hands-on and via the Internet.

Astronomy and Physics Professor Robert Collier conceptualized the observatory a few years ago, and progress snowballed with the first major donation: a $100,000 grant from the Nevada Gaming Foundation for Educational Excellence. Other major gifts came from the SBC Foundation and local businessman Andy Butti. After a fund-raising visit to Carson City by Apollo XI astronaut Buzz Aldrin, individual and business donations poured in, including--thanks to U.S. Senator John Ensign--a $300,000 congressional award.

Vice President for Institutional Advancement Helaine Jesse, who led fund-raising efforts, said, "What makes this project so special is that it is a local vision, inspired by our faculty, and built totally with community and statewide support."

Now that the observatory is open, Collier admits to being almost overwhelmed by the generosity of the community, the complexity of the project and the educational opportunities it provides for students.

"It's truly amazing that this happened at a community college in Carson City," Collier said. "It's taken us awhile to get everything dialed in, but once we get all the equipment set up the way we want it, we'll begin to see exactly the kind of research students will be able to pursue at the observatory."

Given the level of equipment in the observatory, the research possibilities are extensive. Inside the 2,800-square-foot facility are three telescopes--two 16-inch and one 10-inch. One is equipped with a spectrograph which can collect data from the stars. Outside is a robo-dome with a telescope for studying the sun, including solar prominences that come off the edges of sunspots. All the telescopes have cameras. Nine workstation-grade computers and a laptop inside the observatory have access to the telescopes. In addition, the computers and telescopes are connected to a large overhead TV screen and a plasma TV screen, so entire classes can view the stars from their desks.

Not all the research data will come from outer space, though. A Campbell Scientific weather station is installed outside the observatory. The solar-powered instrument collects weather data and sends it to the Desert Research Institute in Reno, where it is analyzed and uploaded to the World Wide Web, accessible to Internet users ( DRI will use the data for regional weather database studies.

A Planetary Walkway connects the main campus with the observatory. The walkway was created as a fund-raiser for the project and each of the planets was "sold" to local families and organizations. It features massive, four-to-six-foot-tall stones with carved images of the planets along with information about them and a dedication to the donors. Artistic inmates from the Nevada State Prison created the monuments from sandstone at the prison's old quarry.


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