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BPAA looking deep into future

Stephen Ruhl is the education director for the Battle Point Astronomical Association. The Association is launching a campaign to renovate and update the facilities. - Brad Camp/Staff Photos
Stephen Ruhl is the education director for the Battle Point Astronomical Association. The Association is launching a campaign to renovate and update the facilities.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photos

When the earth blotted out the moon for full lunar eclipse on the evening of Feb. 20, a horde of islanders descended on the observatory at Battle Point Park.

As a shadow slid over the moon, they filled the observatory parking lot and spilled out across the grounds around the squat concrete building.

It was one of many recent events to overflow the observatory, operated by Battle Point Astronomical Association. With a host of educational offerings, including star gazing parties and guest speakers, and the addition of a small planetarium two years ago, BPAA has seen a burgeoning audience among both the islanders and mainlanders.

The new interest has shed light on the shortcomings of the World War II era “Helix building” military radio tower base, which was reincarnated as the Edwin Ritchie Observatory in 1997.

There is no indoor bathroom, visitors navigate steep stairways to reach the roof, ceilings leak and the old oil furnace is overwhelmed in the winter – all problems largely overlooked in the early years of the association.

“It wasn’t a problem when we were just a bunch of guys with telescopes,” BPAA President Harry Colvin said.

But realizing the need to accommodate an ever-growing number of visitors, from pre-schoolers to senior citizens, BPAA recently launched a fund drive for a capital project that will fix those nagging problems while expanding the observatory to meet the demand of stargazers for decades.

Over a year of planning, project has been mapped out in two stages to be completed as money and time becomes available.

An initial $347,000 phase will address myriad small facility problems and overhaul the dome that houses the Edwin Ritchie Telescope.

A second $1,267,000 phase will build a planetarium wing on the site, and locate a remotely operated telescope in the Southwest to allow island astronomers to study the skies even on overcast nights.

“We have the potential to expand this facility to serve the public for 30, 40 even 50 years out,” Colvin said.

The 27-inch diameter Ritchie Telescope is the centerpiece of the observatory, and according to BPAA members, the only research-grade telescope readily available to the public in the Pacific Northwest.

The telescope is currently covered in the white bubble-like plywood structure atop the observatory, accessed by climbing three sets of stairs and walking across the roof of the building. A three-foot-wide slot in the bubble opens to form both an entry for astronomers and the “shutter” the telescope peers through.

Once inside, visitors shuffle around around the base of the bubble on a raised walkway and mount wooden ladder to reach the telescope’s viewfinder. Both the housing and computer-controlled telescope rotate to view different portions of the sky.

At night it takes five BPAA staff members to safely guide a group students to the telescope’s eyepiece.

“We’ve got a problem just getting six to eight people up here,” Colvin said.

BPAA plans to start from scratch, replacing the bubble with a prefabricated steel hemisphere.

The dome will greatly increase space around the telescope and new stairway will lead to an entrance in the dome’s floor. The new cover will also double the size of the shutter, giving the telescope a greater viewing area and allowing for the installation of a second telescope that would be linked to a viewing monitor on the ground floor.

Meanwhile, a room on first floor which stores several of BPAA’s eight portable telescopes will be converted into a bathroom so visitors can avoid bumbling through the dark to the Sanican or other park facilities. A new furnace and lighting system will be installed and the floors and walls will be refinished.

Once the small pressing problems are quelled, and the Ritchie Telescope is rehoused, BPAA plans to embark on a second stage of construction that will realize an expansive vision for the observatory.

It plans to construct a new planetarium building adjacent to the observatory, a wing where 50 visitors could watch astronomy shows projected onto the domed ceiling as well as large format science videos.

The new planetarium would build on the success of a small dome BPAA installed in a ground-floor room of the observatory two years ago. Though small and relatively crude, the dome has allowed BPAA to give shows even when the sky is too cloudy to use telescopes, which on Bainbridge can be more than 300 nights a year.

“The planetarium gives us a consistent venue where we can talk about a subject for an hour, and if the sky miraculously clears we can go outside and have a star viewing party afterward,” BPAA education officer Steve Ruhl said.

The second phase of the capital plan includes another tool for viewing clear skies even on overcast evenings.

BPAA plans to test a remotely controlled camera and telescope then place it on a site somewhere in the Southwestern U.S.

Like a Web camera, users could manipulate the telescope over the Internet and the view from its lens would be viewed on monitors in the comfort of the Ritchie Observatory 1,000 miles away.

BPAA estimates the remote observatory would allow islanders a clear view of the sky 250 nights out of the year.

On the grounds surrounding the observatory and planetarium, the second phase will install a series of celestial-themed exhibits and artwork including a solar clock.

While preparing the observatory for a new generation of amateur astronomers, Colvin said the association will display exhibits in the entryway to honor the group of islanders who envisioned the club in the early 1990s.

When the Bainbridge Island Parks Department was considering the demolition of the Helix Building in 1992, BPAA founders Mac Gariner, Ed Ritchie and John Rudolph saw it as a solid base for an observatory and lobbied for a stay of execution for the structure.

“It was just sitting here full of various critters,” Colvin said. “The founders thought it was possible to build it into an observatory.”

The three acquired a 27.5-inch surplus mirror from Boeing, and with the help of fellow enthusiasts, ground and polished the mirror in a south-island workshop and built it into a telescope. The scope, which weighs over 1,000 pounds, was lifted by crane to the top of the Helix Building in 1997.

Meanwhile an all volunteer force renovated the Helix Building, adding a library, meeting room, workshop and storage. The building and grounds were secured on a long-term lease from the Parks Department.

Ritchie and Rudolph have since passed away, but the club has grown to over 130 members and reaches regional schools and community groups with portable presentations.

Colvin said astronomy is a scientific field that tends to attract amateurs, perhaps because it is inclusive of other disciplines including chemistry, physics, mathematics and optics.

A challenge of BPAA’s fundraising effort will be showing the community at large that the observatory can be an asset for what Colvin calls “science based recreation.”

“We think of our parks, perhaps, as sports fields and tracks,” Colvin said. “I hope the community understands that astronomy encompasses so many different sciences.”

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BOX: The Battle Point Astronomical Association is raising funds to renovate and expand the Ritchie Observatory in two phases.

Phase one will overhaul the dome housing the observatory’s main telescope, install a restroom and improve heating, lighting, stairways and other interior elements in the building. It will cost $347,875.

Phase two will construct a new planetarium on observatory grounds, install outdoor exhibits and establish a remotely controlled telescope and camera on a site in the Southwest U.S. viewable from Battle Point. It will cost $1,267,300.

Find more information about the project at www.bpastro.org or email vicepresident@bpastro.org.

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