Go outside at night. Look up. What do you see?
Pitch blackness. And on a clear night, the galaxy.
Now a Moose resident is attempting to raise $5 million for a public observatory with a planetarium in Jackson Hole to help educate us about what we can see in the heavens.
The observatory would take advantage of the valley’s thin atmosphere and dark skies.
The plan calls for a telescope with a 50-inch lens, a size rarely seen outside research observatories, said the project’s founder, Samuel Singer, executive director of a nonprofit called Wyoming Stargazing.
Members of the public usually have only fleeting access to telescopes that powerful throughout the world. Singer said his mission is to change that.
Many features of Jackson Hole encourage stargazing, said a fellow astronomer who owns an observatory on Spring Gulch Road.
“We have relatively dark skies, which is good,” Brad Mead said. “We have transparent skies, which is good. We have a reasonable number of nights that don’t have clouds, which is good.”
One thing that is not good for astronomy, however, is the Teton Range.
Atmospheric turbulence, Mead said, affects the quality of what astronomers call “seeing,” a term that goes beyond the average person’s definition of seeing.
Because the valley lies on the leeward side of the Tetons, this is a common problem, he said. Air masses here “come over the mountains like water over a rock.
“Seeing here is usually the limiting thing,” he said.
That causes problems for large telescopes in particular, Mead said. But the weather sometimes lets up, he said.
“There are nights here when it’s great,” he said, “and when it is great a 50-inch telescope is going to be vastly superior to a small telescope.”
The frequency of imperfect seeing conditions make Jackson Hole an unsuitable location for a professional research telescope, its proponents say. But the conditions leave it still a preeminent site for a public observatory, Singer said.
Soon after earning a doctorate in science education from the University of Wyoming, Singer formed Wyoming Stargazing as a 501(c)3 nonprofit whose mission is to build the observatory and planetarium.
Singer is raising money to complete a set of plans for the facility.He then hopes to raise $5 million for its completion. The cost of the telescope alone is estimated at $2 million, and the planetarium would add another $2 million to $3 million to the bill, Singer said.
A location has not yet been firmed up. Singer will seek grants, private and corporate donations and foundation support, he said.
He hopes to make a telescope that’s ideal for public and educational use. The instrument’s qualities would differ from those that, for instance, the University of Wyoming selected for its observatory on Mount Jelm, he said.
“There aren’t going to be a lot of professional astronomers who would want to buy time at a research telescope in Jackson,” Singer said.
“But it’s still going to be a mind-boggling view when you see Jupiter through a 50-inch telescope and you can see clouds rippling on the surface,” he said.
What allows UW to own its massive, 2.3-meter telescope also prevents access to the instrument for all but an exclusive group of students. As a result of research demands on the Mount Jelm observatory, only a handful of times are available each year for the public, Singer said.
Sacrificing a bit of seeing to better serve the proposed telescope’s educational function is “part of the deal,” Singer said. “I want this to be the most incredible facility that most nonresearchers get to utilize.
“It’s a telescope that doesn’t need to be built in Jackson for research purposes,” he said. “I’m trying to build the observatory for education.”
Singer said he plans to construct a planetarium to complement the Jackson Hole observatory.
With regions of space projected onto a domed interior, a planetarium displays deep portions of the night sky.
That allows hundreds of people to view at once what only one person can see through a telescope, Singer said.
It would also work during adverse weather when the telescope will not.
Singer intends to teach telescope-making at the facility.
He and Mead made their own telescopes by grinding lenses to the correct curvature and housing the lenses and mirrors in metal cylinders.
“You can pretty easily — if you’re willing to put in the time — build a pretty high-performance telescope,” Singer said.
An observatory in Jackson Hole would benefit from its nearness to smart, curious people, another astronomer said.
“I think people here would get interested,” said Michael Adler, who is building his own observatory in Wilson. “There are a lot of very well-educated people interested in lots of different things.”
Even without the observatory complete, friends still come to his house to use his telescopes, Adler said.
The Jackson Hole Astronomy Club, founded by the late Walt Farmer, has been engaging residents with the sky for decades. Singer recently was voted president of the group.
Interest in astronomy here and elsewhere is being stoked by recent discoveries in the science, he said.
“Fifteen years ago we hadn’t seen any evidence of any planets outside the solar system,” Adler said.
More than a thousand such planets have been confirmed.
Scientists today estimate that 20 percent of stars are like the sun and that planets revolve around 20 percent of those stars, Adler said. And the number of stars is believed to approximate the number of grains of sand on Earth — in the order of 10 to the 20th power.
Of humans’ apparently instinctive desire to learn about other planets, he said, “People want to know if there’s another Earth. Are we alone?”
The universe is now known to be not only expanding but accelerating in its expansion, Adler said. Some as-yet-unknown cause, called dark energy, propels the acceleration.
Of what is known in the universe, matter makes up only 4 percent, Adler said. Dark energy constitutes another 70 percent. Another unknown material called dark matter forms the remaining 26 percent.
“We learned all this in the last 10 years,” Adler said.
Space agencies around the globe have embarked on nine separate planetary missions, he said.
These include lunar orbiters, a Mars orbiter and a spacecraft approaching Pluto, Adler said. “And another is interacting with asteroids to find out what’s happening 4.5 billion years ago when the sun formed.”
Scientists discovered the Higgs Boson in 2012 using the Large Hadron Supercollider, and confirmed its existence one year ago.
Facts learned about the particle could mean the universe will tend to destroy itself in time, Adler said. That may have already begun at the edges of the universe, with signs of it not yet having reached Earth.
“People are interested in this,” he said.
A public observatory “is an asset not just for the people but for the children,” Adler said. “Children are very curious — they really enjoy looking through telescopes.”