Observatory Visit - Leif Everson Observatory

Joe Shuster

As the club prepares to make some serious decisions about a site and observatory for our LakeSky Telescope, we're eager to get more exposure to the observatory experience of other astronomy clubs. So I was happy to find that there was a club observatory in Door County where my family and I vacationed in early August. The Leif Everson Observatory (LEO) is operated by the Door Peninsula Astronomical Society (DPAS). The observatory is in Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin at the Crossroads at BigCreek, a multi-purpose facility that combines nature, history, recreation and astronomy on a 115-acre preserve.

Between go-carting and miniature golf and fudge shopping, I tracked down a phone number for a DPAS member and eventually arranged to get a tour of the observatory on our way home. I met Ray Stonecipher bright and early (ok, it was 9:30, but we were on vacation) at the observatory. He just introduced himself as "Ray", but later, I found he was a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Wisconsin. Some tour guide!

Just inside the observatory door is a 10'x10' control room with a computer (attached to the telescope mount) and storage for a variety of cameras, binoculars and other astro-bric-a-brac. The telescope (Celestron C14 SCT) is mounted on a Software Bisque GT1100 mount. The pier for the mount extends upwards a lot and the observatory floor is raised about 3' above ground level to improve the telescope's horizon. The area underneath the floor is used for storage. The dome is a Home Dome from Technical Innovations.

The observatory was named for Leif Everson who was a local football player and excellent student until he died suddenly from heart failure in 1992 at the age of 16. Later, to honor Leif's skill and enthusiasm in science, his parents donated money to the DPAS and the observatory was dedicated in 1997.

About 25 yards from the observatory, a new building is being constructed as a club meeting facility. The room will be about 2/3rds as the large room at the Volo Bog where we meet. The ceilings are being constructed especially high to accommodate the club's inflatable planetarium. In addition, some unheated storage for the club's several telescopes is being included in the construction. The money for the construction was donated by Ray so he was very eager to chat about the new facility. The club has been meeting at the Crossroads facility - a nice meeting place, but too far from the observatory on the grounds. Most importantly, the new building will have restroom facilities, replacing the portapotty.

Surrounding the observatory are a couple of other noteworthy features. First, the club built a radio telescope using NASA's Radio JOVE project plans. The radio telescope can be used to listen to activities near Jupiter and also on the Sun. The cost of a JOVE telescope is less than $400 - well within the reach of most clubs.

Another interesting feature is the "StarGarden". The StarGarden includes a special stone and grass bench that lets viewers lay back to observe the sky - perfect for naked eye astronomy such as meteor showers. There's a "lone star" pad for the observer who wants to be a little farther away from the crowd. Another area has posts for the 6 parallelogram mounts and binoculars. And to help the observers keep their orientation, the walkway has an indicator pointing north. The garden was designed by Minnesota artist, Jean Humke. The project was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Getting back to the tough observatory questions, I talked to Ray about some of the issues raised by our other site visits. Ray said that the Home Dome had none of the cold weather issues reported at some of the other observatories we visited. This is more impressive considering Door Peninsula's colder, wetter winters. The choice of dome vs. roll-off was not a big deal to the club - they simply preferred the classic look of a dome! The only dome problem was during mating the dome to the track. The construction workers had "nudged" the dome track out of round so the dome couldn't turn. Once the track was adjusted the dome has operated fine.

The observatory area is gated, so ad hoc use of the scope requires a key to the gate as well as a key to the observatory. Ray said members are trained and (a limited number of) keys are issued. The telescope gets the typical public use and is also frequently used by members for astrophotography.

Ray reported the same kind of synergy and rapport between the astronomers and the hosts that we've seen in Rockford and elsewhere. It seems the cohabitation of astronomers and naturalists benefits both groups as well as the public.

Hopefully we'll have a similar experience at the Pringle Center.

Published in the October 2006 issue of the NightTimes