After 10 years of inspiring new generations of scientists, Western Nevada College and the Jack C. Davis Observatory will celebrate with a series of special events beginning Thursday.
Guest lectures, Science Week demonstrations and an exhibit of space photography will highlight the accomplishments of the observatory.
“It went pretty fast,” said observatory director Robert Collier of the past decade. “The observatory has proven that if you have a place for people to come and do science in action, they will.”
The observatory’s “First Light” grand opening on May 15, 2003, featured a visit by Apollo Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon.
Since then, the three telescopes, classrooms, lecture room and observation deck have been in full use ever since.
Star Parties give the general public a glimpse of cosmos. WNC science students take advantage of the advanced equipment to get a first hand view of the science behind the lectures and textbooks. Plus science teachers from the elementary and high schools use the observatory and loaned telescopes to ignite a love for science in their young students.
Collier developed the idea after years of telling his science students why observatories were in remote areas. They need dark skies, high elevation and a dry climate.
“Then it dawned on me, that’s what we have here,” he said of his eureka moment in the early 1990s.
Students, administration, city officials and the community began to gather around the idea.
Working entirely with funds donated by individuals, foundations and businesses, the college broke ground on the observatory in 2001.
Community support lead to some public support and a congressional award of $350,000 to purchase equipment — and earmarked only for equipment.
The observatory is operated entirely by a volunteer staff, which Collier said is unusual, but effective.
“Volunteers spend a lot of extra time to come out and set up equipment for me,” he said. “It takes a lot of adjustments to really make (observations) happen.”
With economic realities limiting operating funds, volunteers and private supporters are absolutely necessary to keep the observatory running and students accessing the heavens, Collier said.
The observatory equipment includes three telescopes connected to classroom computers, where students and scientists can explore the data gathered.
“Not many observatories have classrooms,” Collier said.
Not many colleges even have observatories and the well-equipped Davis Observatory draws some envy.
“We don’t realize what we have here until someone comes and tells us,” Collier said.
Recently, Dr. John Keller from the physics department of California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., was in Carson City to train volunteers for the RECON project, who will observe Kaiper Belt objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.
“Robert,” Keller told Collier, “I would do anything to have this on campus at CalPoly to do research.”
In recent years, WNC President Dr. Carol Lucey worked with the Carson City Board of Supervisors on public policy to protect the view of the night sky by requiring that outside lighting points down.
“It’s helping to preserve the quality of the light dome of the city so we can preserve what we have,” Collier said.
The supporters of the observatory have a few dreams for the future, including a larger telescope, Collier said.
“In astrophysics, the bigger, the larger the telescope, the better. Big is good.”
Whatever the future brings, the Jack C. Davis Observatory is a vibrant part of the community right now.
“It’s so marvelous to see dreams come true and unfolding in my lifetime,” Collier said. “It’s much larger than I expected. The only thing we haven’t done is make a major discovery, but whose to say that won’t come.”
The Jack C. Davis Observatory 10th anniversary celebration begins with free lectures on Thursday and Friday presented by scientists actively working on major ongoing space projects.
“Roving Mars: From Sojourner Through Curiosity” will be presented Thursday by Dr. Wendy Calvin, director at the Center for Geothermal Energy and a specialist with the Rover project.
Calvin’s lecture will address the evolution of engineering and landing systems as well as how our scientific knowledge about Mars has advanced.
“Cassini the Space Probe & Moons of Saturn” will be presented Friday by planetary scientist Dr. Candice Hansen-Koharecheck, a specialist with the Cassini Mission.
Both lectures begin at 7 p.m. in Marlette Hall, Cedar Building at WNC.
The weekly Star Parties continue Saturday beginning at 8:45 p.m. in the observatory. All are invited to enjoy telescope stargazing.
WNC will observe Science Week May 6-8 with daily experiments, demonstrations and information available about the science programs at the college from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. each day.
From 4:40-6:30 p.m. on May 15 — the 10th anniversary of the observatory’s First Light —a reception and lecture will highlight the opening of the Davis Observatory Photography Exhibit in the Bristlecone Building Art Galleries.
The exhibit, which runs through summer, features the space photography of Western Nevada Astronomical Society member and observatory volunteer John Dykes. Many of his photographs were taken at the observatory. Also featured will be profiles of WNC astronomy students who now work in the field of physics and astronomy.
The lecture will present the history and future of the Jack C. Davis Observatory plus a presentation on cosmic rays.