Observatory at Mingo Creek park offers heavenly view
June 4, 2009 10:15 AM
View of the 24inch Ritchey-Chretien reflector from observing room entrance at Mingo Creek Park Observatory.
By Margaret Smykla
When Craig Lang was a boy, his father let him stay up late one night to watch a television documentary on outer space.
"I really, really enjoyed the talk of stars and galaxies, and was amazed that although they were far away, we could see them in the nighttime sky," he recalled.
Today Mr. Lang, 38, of Canonsburg, an engineer, is vice president of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh. And he invites others to experience the thrill of the heavens during a free public star party from 7 to 11 p.m. June 12-13 in Mingo Creek County Park in Nottingham.
The free event will be held at the Mingo Creek Park Observatory, owned and operated by the 400-member astronomers' group near Shelter 10 in the park.
Public star parties, during which visitors view celestial objects through the observatory's two permanent telescopes or portable ones set up on the grounds by members, are held once or twice a month by the nonprofit organization from April through October.
"I like seeing people's reactions, like when they look at Saturn and see the rings. They think we're pulling a trick with pictures," Mr. Lang said.
The observatory has a refracting telescope with a 10-inch diameter lens and a reflecting telescope with a 24-inch diameter mirror.
A refracting telescope uses lenses to bend light into the eyepiece.
"If you are looking at a planet and want to see surface features, you would use the refracting telescope for a clearer view, although the colors would be distorted by the bend of the light," Mr. Lang explained.
A reflecting telescope uses a large primary mirror to focus the light and a smaller secondary mirror and eyepiece to direct the focus to the observer.
Relative to a refractor, the light-gathering power of a reflecting telescope can be made larger while keeping the telescope to a manageable size, thereby enabling one to see more distant, fainter objects.
The observatory building also houses a planetarium/large classroom and two smaller classrooms that serve as learning sites for scout groups, science classes and others.
Remodeling is under way in the planetarium which will, by mid- to late-summer, allow for a virtual tour of the sky in which the star patterns are shone on the inside of a new, 20-foot dome.
The 3,600-square-foot observatory was built in 2004 for $475,000, which the astronomy group funded through donations, club dues and two grants from the state Department of Community and Economic Development. It pays the county a dollar a year to lease the property.
Its location is ideal for star gazing: A 1,149-foot elevation allows for a wider view of the sky. The rural surroundings make for darker conditions to better view the night skies.
All events in the building are free to the public.
The astronomy group also runs the Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park, in Frazer, where it also holds public star parties.
The $10,000 annual operating costs for both observatories are funded mainly through members' dues and some donations.
Mr. Lang said what he likes best about astronomy is the connection with people and places unknown.
"It is really neat to see the stars and grasp the idea that someone at the same latitude across the world is seeing the exact same stars," he said.
For more information on the AAAP or on its observatories, visit www.3ap.org.