Looking to the stars

Observatory opens

Fort Roberdeau held a ribbon cutting ceremony Wednesday to open a new feature at the facility. The Mountain Lion Observatory was constructed just outside the fort’s walls. A few hundred people showed up Wednesday night to stargaze through their own telescopes or through the permanently mounted NexStar 9.25-inch telescope. Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec

SINKING VALLEY — As twilight faded to darkness Wednesday, a few hundred people filled the area of the new Mountain Lion Observatory at Fort Roberdeau.

Inside the observatory is a permanently mounted NexStar 9.25-inch telescope, which many waited in line to use Wednesday night. Many others brought their own telescopes and blankets to sit and stargaze near the observatory. The opening night was the culmination of a two-year process for construction of the observatory, and it was well received.

“I think it’s really cool. It’s something different to have in town,” Bryce Calabove, 20, said. “It’s cool that it’s bringing people together.”

Jim Krug, director of Altoona Area High School’s Neil Armstrong Planetarium, worked with the Blair County commissioners to open the observatory at the county-owned, restored historic Revolutionary War-era fort.

Krug, who takes high school students to Fort Roberdeau, said he sees the observatory as a way to attract more visitors to the fort year-round.

“People are so plugged in that we often lose our sense of the beauty of nature around us. If humans can look to the stars and see our planet from a cosmic perspective, I think there will be a lot less fighting here,” Krug said.

The Mountain Lion Observatory at Fort Roberdeau was achieved with donations, fundraisers and a commitment from the Fort Roberdeau Association.

Krug said the Altoona Area School District Foundation contributed $2,000, with half of that donated by Russ and Sue Holzer. In addition, $4,000 came from a promotional effort through the Altoona Curve.

A total of $5,000 was contributed by the Fort Roberdeau Association, another $2,800 was raised from Altoona Sunrise Rotary Spaghetti dinner and $2,000 was raised last Halloween through a haunted tour at Fort Roberdeau. About 50 students who are members of the Astronomy Club worked at the event.

Krug contributed more than $10,000 to the project over the last two years through Neil Armstong Planetarium public sky shows, private birthday parties and adult night sky classes.

Tom Kasner, president of the Starlight Astronomy Club, operated the telescope for viewers on Wednesday. Krug purchased the 9.25-inch reflecting telescope from a former NASA employee in Florida. It is a permanent part of the observatory.

Krug said the observatory is planned to be a community science facility year-round.

“We envision a lot of school groups using it to learn astronomy and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). And public sky watches will be held there throughout the year,” Krug said. “It will also be available for groups to rent privately. That will help generate revenue for the fort.”

The grand opening for the observatory drew people who seldom visit the fort.

“Last time I was here was high school,” said Samantha Floyd, a 2008 Altoona Area graduate.

“This is phenomenal to have this observatory available,” she said.