In 1992, three not-so-amateurish astronomers, Edwin E. Ritchie, John H. Rudolph and Mac Gardiner founded the Battle Point Astronomical Association (BPAA), named for the location in which the group met at Battle Point Park. Although we definitely have our share of overcast days and nights, the open landscape and the lack of light pollution made it (and still makes it) an ideal location to conduct public star parties, presentations on the latest developments in astronomy, and classes on basic astronomy. But why stop there? Why not an observatory too?
Located on a small rise in the park, they found the perfect spot, it even came with a building—an abandoned World War II Navy radio-transmitter building known as Helix House, which originally housed a helical coil that generated long carrier waves to the Pacific Fleet. The 26-by-38-foot structure, with its 25-foot-high walls was ideal as it was elevated and stable, but more importantly, the site was dark as can be when the sun went down.
Although the Helix House was slated for demolition by the Parks Department, BPAA convinced them it would better serve the community as an observatory. And they were right. However, renovating the building and equipping it with a sizable computer-controlled telescope wouldn’t be easy. With limited funds from their members, they drew upon their own talents and those of the community to get the job done.
Mac Gardiner, a retired Boeing engineer was instrumental in working with Boeing to obtain the 27 ½-inch mirror, made of Zerodur—a special, low-expansion glass ceramic—as well as the additional 41 ½-inch Zerodur mirror blank, both of which were surplus optics from an obsolete Strategic Defense Initiative project. Gardiner was also a talented scavenger, scrounging here and there for scrap materials that could be used for the project.
John Rudolph, a local architect, created the plans for the building renovation and observatory deck/dome, as well as managing the volunteer construction crew. Like Gardiner, he found parts anywhere he could and encouraged his crew to do the same; one volunteer pulled windows from the trash, another donated a rebuilt oil heater, while one more found surplus interior doors and cedar decking, and another procured a 200-ampere electrical panel. In addition to donated and/or found supplies, local carpenters and electricians donated labor and materials and the Bainbridge Island Rotary Club assisted with additional funding.
Retired inventor, prosthetic-limb designer and master machinist, Ed Ritchie, took on the job of building the telescope. He constructed all the parts for the main telescope and did most of the machine work himself, including bending the steel for the 300-pound telescope fork mount using a 20-ton hydraulic press and creating the grinding/polishing machine, which was used (over the course of about 12 months) to grind almost a half inch off the face and remove the flaws to produce the rough spherical surface. He also tooled several of the telescope parts such as the micrometer and the spherometer.
Once the mirror was ready for the final stages, Gardiner carefully packed it into his car and drove down to California to have it vacuum-coated with aluminum and silicon dioxide applied to protect the surface
Sadly, Ed Ritchie passed away on March 13, 1997, shortly after completing the telescope. With more than 20 members of his family, BPAA members, and a large crowd from the community, the Edwin E. Ritchie Observatory was dedicated on December 21st of that year.
I had the pleasure of meeting with BPAA President, Frank Petrie and Chief Astronomer, Cole Rees to learn more about the observatory’s past, present and future.
We began our tour at the impressive front doors, which are original to the building. Once inside the foyer, you’ll find a storage room for loaner telescopes, a storage/furnace room and the classroom/planetarium. A concrete block structure rises through the center of the building to support the Ritchie Telescope on the roof. Frank explained that when they first began construction, there were several large concrete piers in the future classroom/planetarium which needed to be demolished, unfortunately no amount of jackhammering would do. In the end BPAA inserted dynamite into the piers and raffled off tickets for the winning ticket holder to press the detonator that blew them up. It worked beautifully.
The classroom/planetarium can comfortably seat 40 people, and boasts a 14 ½-foot ceiling, allowing space for a planetarium dome. The dome is removable, and made of a curved aluminum frame supporting a reflective surface of movie screen projection material. BPAA is currently working with Bainbridge Community Foundation (BCF) as well as other fundraising efforts to purchase a new projector and upgraded computer equipment for the planetarium and observatory as a whole. Once the new projector is obtained, a more sophisticated dome will need to be built for the room, which they’re hoping to collaborate on with Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network (BARN).
Fun fact: If you glance upwards, you’ll see an odd square opening on the left-hand wall. This “hole” runs through the central concrete telescope support structure. When BPAA were drawing up the renovation plans, one member realized that a window on an upper floor was perfectly positioned to receive sunlight for the winter solstice, but the light needed a pathway in which it could shine through. Thus, they built in the hole, which provides a tunnel for the rays to travel, where they’re reflected on the opposite wall of the planetarium.
Once the renovations are complete, the planetarium will be rededicated as the John H. Rudolph Planetarium.
From there, we headed up the spiral staircase to the mezzanine level where you’ll find the member meeting room, complete with a library (built by the woodworkers at BARN). In addition, this area houses most of the computerized communication and control equipment and a shelf displaying some of the original small handmade calibration devices for the mirror and telescope.
Chief Astronomer, Cole Rees explained that the new state-of-the-art computer system will vastly improve the telescope’s tracking, imaging, image-processing, and storage capabilities. The new system will also provide the ability to participate in scientific astronomical surveying, observation of exoplanets, as well as improved interferometry. This in part, was made possible by Bainbridge Island Metro Parks & Recreation Department’s generous installation of a microwave internet link, which has greatly improved internet access and makes usage of the new, and more sophisticated equipment possible. “Once the new system is installed, the only limitation will be the weather,” Cole said.
Next to the main meeting room, you’ll find a combination storage room and ham radio station, operated by Bainbridge Island Amateur Radio Club (BARC) (official call sign W7NPC). BPAA President, Frank Petrie, who is also a member of BARC, explained that having the station there is a wonderful addition to the observatory for two reasons, “it provides an opportunity for island ham operators who live in apartments or condos with restrictions on large antennas to practice on-air and enjoy making contacts around the world, and it provides long distance communication capability for the emergency HUB established in Battle Point Park by Bainbridge Prepares.” Frank is also hopeful that hams with an interest in astronomy will experiment with “radio astronomy” utilizing homebuilt receivers tuned to specific radio frequencies emanating from celestial sources.
The room also houses donated telescopes in need of a little TLC (mostly concerning their drive mechanisms), and circling back to the fun fact above, you’ll find a large round window (currently boarded up) that allows light to stream through to the corresponding “winter solstice” tunnel opening from the planetarium room one floor below.
The grand finale was of course the dome and Ritchie Telescope itself, which is the largest telescope accessible to the public in the Pacific Northwest. Frank explained that the 17-foot-diameter dome—which can entertain up to 20 “star gazers”—is made of plywood and like everything else at the observatory, it was built by volunteers.
Unfortunately, it was pouring rain on the day of my tour, and Frank and Cole were unable to open the roof door. However, they were able to angle the telescope around, giving me a glimpse of the impressive Zerodur mirror. As Frank explained, the 27 ½-inch telescope was designed to be both Newtonian and Cassegrain by switching secondary mirrors.
Upgrades and improvements are always ongoing at the observatory, and one such pertained to the original bearings, which had begun to wear down, and the mounting arms, which needed to be enlarged. BPAA turned to Peter Moseley, who donated much of the machine shop equipment at BARN (and current BPAA Secretary) for help. Peter steered the effort to build the new hardware, as Frank said, “he was one of our guiding lights” in facilitating the improvements. In addition to Moseley, the team that built the parts consisted of Stan Stumbo, David Browning, Steve Ruhl, Ken Warman, Mark McComsey, and Frank Petrie.
As we departed the dome, the rain had let up a bit and we could see the ground-level viewing platforms for members to use (with their own, or a BPAA loaner telescope) as well as the Equatorial Bow String Sundial designed by local sculptor and metalsmith, Bill Baran-Mickle. Prof. Woody Sullivan of the UW Astronomy Department provided scientific advice. David Browning and Frank Petrie did the engineering design, and Lee Fabricators of Silverdale built and installed it. BPAA’s Russ Heglund and Malcolm Saunders were also involved in the planning. *
To ignite passion for scientific inquiry expressed through the lens of astronomy.
To provide opportunities for the curious to observe and discover the wonders of the universe. Supported by shared expertise and the largest publicly accessible telescope in the Pacific Northwest, our members and the wider community engage in hands-on experiences of astronomy, space exploration, and the enabling technologies.
Membership is only $20.00 per year ($30 for a family membership, $10 for students) and offers additional features such as organizing your own events and access to the loaner telescopes, click here for details.
Upcoming Events: Webb Telescope First Images events live streamed from NASA (July 12 & 16); Webb Telescope event with KiDiMu (August 6); Second-Saturday monthly lectures and star parties (weather permitting); Impromptu star parties as conditions warrant. Check their website (bpastro.org) and social media (Facebook: BattlePointAstronomy and Instagram: bp_astronomical) for details.
BPAA and KiDiMu: BPAA is excited to collaborate with the Kids Discovery Museum on a number of science-themed learning opportunities. Last year KiDiMu hosted a “James Webb Space Telescope Launch Party”, and BPAA brought telescopes for the kids to look through and learn how to use. They also provided telescopes to FamJam for a similar engagement. Coming up in August, they’ll participate in KiDiMu’s Webb Telescope event on 6th, and they will be hosting Kids in Space at the Ritchie Observatory Day Camp the week of August 8 – 11. “We’re thrilled to bring science to kids through the lens of astronomy in partnership with KiDiMu,” said Frank.
Got skills? BPAA is always in need of people with skills; whether it be computer, carpentry, painting, electrical…or you’re great at helping out with a variety of tasks and want to learn more about astronomy. Sign up to volunteer at the observatory and reach for the stars! Contact Frank Petrie at email@example.com for details.
“In addition to the overwhelming community support received in the 1990s for the creation of the Observatory and Telescope, more recently BPAA has received the following support for specific projects:
- In 2021 a Community Grant through Bainbridge Community Foundation funded the rebuilding of the rooftop shelter over the spiral access stairway, which was leaking.
- The work we did with BARN to improve the telescope bearings and build the bookshelves in our board room was supported by a 2018-19 COBI Cultural Funding Grant.
- In 2014 we received a Rotary Grant for the purchase of a telescope equipped with special filters for safe viewing of the sun. This telescope is used extensively for our daytime public outreach events and will be featured at our booth at the 2022 Grand Old 4th.
- In 2013-14 multiple grants were received to support the creation of the Sundial. Grantors included the Bainbridge Parks Foundation, the North American Sundial Society, and several local family foundations. These grants supplemented many individual donations from the community at large.
BPAA is grateful for the continuing support from the Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap community.” – Frank Petrie, President of BPAA
*Per BPAA’s website, the Sundial is ‘equatorial’ because the number arc is parallel to the Earth’s equator, and ‘bowstring’ because the gnomon wire is stretched between the tips of a supporting bow (gnomon is a Greek word for pointer).” Latitude N 47º39’40” • Longitude W 122º34’38”
*Images provided by and used with permission from Margaret Millmore, Frank Petrie, President of the BPAA, and Cole Rees, BPAA Chief Astronomer
To subscribe to The Island Wanderer Blog, click here.