Dark skies over Steuben driving observatory plans

Posted Oct. 04, 2012, at 8:03 p.m.
Joerg-Henner Lotze, the director of Eagle Hill Institute in Steuben, said Thursday a new astronomy curriculum is a first step in an initiative that will include construction of a five-story observation tower sited on a hilltop that offers an unobstructed 360-degree panorama of the sky.
Tom Walsh | BDN
Joerg-Henner Lotze, the director of Eagle Hill Institute in Steuben, said Thursday a new astronomy curriculum is a first step in an initiative that will include construction of a five-story observation tower sited on a hilltop that offers an unobstructed 360-degree panorama of the sky. Buy Photo

STEUBEN, Maine — Washington County’s distinction as the only area of the East Coast to have truly dark skies is driving an effort by the Eagle Hill Institute to launch a new on-campus curriculum in astronomy.

Beginning Saturday, Oct. 6, the Institute in Steuben will offer the first of 20 weekend sessions of lectures, demonstrations and celestial observations that will extend into mid-March 2013. Teaching the astronomy sessions on Saturday afternoons and evenings will be astronomer Ralph Battaline. Tuition for each 10-week session is $125.

“The first half, which will extend into mid-December, will include a great deal of solar system history, including how to read the sky,” he said Thursday. “The second half, which starts on Jan. 12, will be more stars-oriented and will cover what I term ‘natural physics.’”

Joerg-Henner Lotze, the director of the Institute, said Thursday the new curriculum is a first step in an astronomy initiative that will include construction of a five-story observation tower located on a hilltop that offers an unobstructed 360-degree panorama of the sky.

“We’re working out the conceptual ideas now and have been talking with an architect,” Lotze said. “There will be two buildings, one the observation tower, which will have a planetarium and classrooms, and the other a domed observatory in which we’ll install a large telescope. There will be a library collection and exhibit space where, for example, one of our colleagues can display his collection of antique telescopes.

“Over time, as the facility grows, we’ll be offering the community and the region a grand opportunity to learn about astronomy, which is something that naturally interests everyone. We want to develop some very special offerings that bridge a range of program activities, from one-hour lectures to experiments involving gravity to day-long and total immersion programs.”

The 150-acre campus will host a special program on Saturday, Oct. 20, that, weather permitting, will include observation of the Orionids meteor shower.

“That night should be the peak time,” Battaline said. “There will be a lecture at 5:30 on comets, meteors and asteroids, followed by a dinner that will have an astronomical theme. Then we’ll be heading outside to view the sky. People should dress warm and bring a lawn chair and patience.”

While the meteor shower program is free and open to the public, dinner that evening is $20 a person.

Lotze said the core idea behind the initiative is to reach out to the public in creative ways that go beyond a lecture format. The institute is already working with students at Machias Memorial High School who are interested in astronomy.

“Rather than them coming here, we go to them,” Lotze said. “The feedback I’ve been getting is that there is a paucity of experience for local students in science. We are mindful of the fact that the Eagle Hill Observatory will be especially important for eastern Maine, where schools have very limited opportunities to offer interesting and meaningful programs in the sciences.”

The nonprofit institute has no firm timeline for building the two observatory buildings, but is beginning to ramp up fundraising for the project, Lotze said.

For more information about the two 10-weekend sessions that start this week or the Oct. 20 dinner, contact Battaline by phone at 207-546-2821 or by email at ralph@eaglehill.us.

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