The Sky’s the Limit at the Ritchie Observatory at Battle Point Park
Last year I visited the Ritchie Observatory at Battle Point Park and met with Battle Point Astronomical Association’s President, Frank Petrie and Chief Astronomer, Cole Rees to learn about the observatory and the association. It all started back in 1992, when three islanders, Edwin E. Ritchie, John H. Rudolph and Mac Gardiner founded Battle Point Astronomical Association (BPAA), named for the location in which the group met to study and observe the night sky. The location was (and still is) perfect due to its open landscape and the lack of light pollution, and was an ideal place to conduct public star parties, presentations on the latest developments in astronomy, and classes on basic astronomy.
The park had another perk, a potential location for an observatory. Sitting on a small rise in Battle Point Park was 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. Working with the Parks Department, BPAA members, the community, and the Bainbridge Island Rotary Club, the dream would eventually become a reality, and on December 21, 1997, the building was christened the Edwin E. Ritchie Observatory (if you’d like to learn more about the observatory and its founders, visit our previous article: Reaching for the Stars: The Ritchie Observatory at Battle Point Park – Built for and by Bainbridge Islanders | THE ISLAND WANDERER ).
At the time of my visit, the observatory was working towards several much-needed renovations and upgrades, so I thought with the spring and summer viewing season almost upon us, I’d check in to see how things have progressed and what’s in store for our community.
As we all know, keeping up with the latest technology is a daunting and expensive task, and BPAA was in need of an updated projection system for the planetarium/classroom and computer system for the facility as a whole. Over the last year, they worked with the Bainbridge Community Foundation (BCF), Bainbridge Island Rotary, and the Bainbridge Island Parks and Trails Foundation, and utilized other fundraising efforts to make that happen.
As Cole Rees, BPAA’s Chief Astronomer explained to me last year, a new state-of-the-art computer system would greatly improve the telescope’s tracking, imaging, image-processing, and storage capabilities. This will enable BPAA to contribute scientific observations of astronomical objects, including transient events like supernovae and comets, as well as confirmation of exoplanet discoveries. So far, the new system has proved to be very promising, but it also revealed some additional upgrades that were needed.
“Initial imaging has revealed the need for some fine tuning, that wasn’t evident when observing visually,” said Frank Petrie, BPAA President. “The first thing we learned was that the right ascension drive motor was failing. To replace it with a newer model we needed to modify its mounting bracket, and that took some time. And while we were at it, we replaced the declination motor as well, since it was of the same vintage as the RA motor that failed.”
They’ve been able to accomplish those upgrades and will resume testing as soon as the weather allows. “The next issue to address is collimation of the optical system, in which the primary and secondary mirrors, and the focuser, are adjusted to more precisely align to the same optical axis,” Frank explained. “This will make the images as sharp as possible. And after that, we will tweak the polar alignment, which is already pretty good, but the high precision of the new camera reveals it to be slightly off.” Once all of this is accomplished, they should be able to begin high-quality deep sky imaging and live streaming a variety of interesting astronomical objects. “As we ramp up our capabilities this will become an every-clear-night activity,” Frank said.
However, there’s more work to be done. BPAA’s ultimate goal is to make the observatory remotely operable and usable for serious science. In order to do that, they need to address structural and mechanical issues with the telescope dome, which they’ve dedicated part of the recent Rotary Grant towards those efforts and they are currently engaged in planning and designing the necessary repairs.
The Ritchie Telescope (which, I should note, is the largest telescope accessible to the public in the Pacific Northwest), is located in the dome on the roof of the observatory and will gain a new main function as well—it will primarily be geared towards astrophotography.
As Frank explained, “The visual image one sees in the Ritchie Telescope is not significantly better than what one can see in more modest telescopes, of which we have several. That’s because of the limitations in our eyes, which prevent seeing much if any detail in extremely dim objects. Another reason has to do with the characteristics of our Pacific Northwest skies. Even on a clear, dark night there is a large amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, and that degrades the telescope image you see with your eyes. Objects appear to swim around in the turbulent, vapor-laden atmosphere. A larger, more powerful telescope actually magnifies these distortions along with the object being observed, so bigger is not necessarily better for visual observing. That’s why the desert is such a great place to do astronomy!”
The Ritchie Telescope has an impressive light-collecting ability, Frank pointed out, “and really shines (pun intended!) when that light can be collected by a camera and integrated to build up highly detailed images.” Using an automated computer process, they collect a series of short duration exposures, discard the bad images and stack the best ones. Through this process they can create amazingly detailed images of astronomical objects like galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, planets, comets, as well as transient astronomical events like supernovae, conjunctions, occultations, and many more.
In addition to the new computer system, they were able to upgrade the projection system in the John H. Rudolph Planetarium. Although the existing removable curved aluminum framed movie screen projection dome works well with the new equipment, it will need to be updated down the line as well (something, Frank notes, they are still working towards).
One of the most important things to note, are the contributions of amateur and semi-amateur astronomers to the professional astronomical community. Because professional astronomers must compete for valuable time on the (relatively few) professional-grade telescopes (both on earth and in space), and this time is limited to availability and in high demand, there are only so many hours to make their observations.
“When the professionals make discoveries with the big telescopes, follow-up observations are needed to confirm the discoveries and extend the data sets to fully characterize transient events, like supernovae or exoplanet transits,” Frank told me. “Amateurs, with their modest equipment and virtually unlimited time can make meaningful contributions to the science by performing high-quality follow-up observations. Citizen-science programs exist to facilitate these efforts, and organizations like the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO.org) have comprehensive online systems in place to both notify amateurs of observing opportunities and to collect the resulting data. We hope soon to participate in such efforts.”
Becoming a member of BPAA puts the young and old on the ground floor of those efforts and of course, it’s just fun!
With all of the new improvements, BPAA is pretty excited about the spring and summer viewing season. They will continue to offer their Second Saturday astronomy programs and are working on offering more Planetarium shows to accommodate more people as seating is limited to 25 people per show.
As weather and volunteer availability permits, they will also offer Star Parties on Friday and Saturday evenings – these are often short notice events, so be sure to check their website often (Battle Point Astronomical Association (bpastro.org), or follow them on Facebook .
They also have a new program, called “Cosmic Conversations”, where a new topic is chosen and discussed each month, such as their recent conversation about the formation and evolution of the universe. Although, this is a member only event, anyone can become a member (*see below for details).
In addition to regular activities at the observatory, BPAA frequently collaborates with KiDiMu, and participates in annual events such as the Earth Day celebration and the Grand Old 4th celebration.
During the months of July and August, they will be holding an Open House each week to coincide with the Park District’s Concerts and Movies in the Park. Since the movies occur after dark, they’ll offer star gazing! “Come on by to any of these events, say hi and see what’s ‘up’!”
On the morning of October 14th there will be an annular eclipse of the sun, which will be visible along a path through central and southern Oregon and on through the American Southwest (https://www.greatamericaneclipse.com/). Here on Bainbridge Island, we should be able to view an 80 percent partial eclipse. Weather permitting, BPAA will have a viewing party at the Observatory.
Bonus Feature! The observatory also houses a ham radio station, operated by Bainbridge Island Amateur Radio Club (BARC) (official call sign W7NPC). It’s a wonderful addition to the observatory because, as Frank said, “it provides a space and opportunity for local 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.” He’s 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. If you’d like to learn more about BARC, visit our previous article: Bainbridge Island Amateur Radio Club…Reaching out locally, nationally and globally! | THE ISLAND WANDERER
On June 24th and 25th BARC will be participating in “Ham Radio Field Day” at the observatory. They will set up portable transmitters and temporary antennas and make radio contacts with other hams all around North America.
*Membership is only $25.00 per year ($40 for a family membership, $10 for students under 18) and offers additional features such as organizing your own events and access to the loaner telescopes, click here for details.
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.
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