Berthoud's Little Thompson Observatory
With a the help of a very special telescope, the Little Thompson Observatory is bringing space home to Berthoud.
The all-volunteer staff in the small town of Berthoud has guided more than 50,000 visitors on a virtual tour of the cosmos.
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(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2013 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)
ON BRIGHT FALL mornings the sun beats down on the small town of Berthoud. The blue sky is cloudless and it’s almost too bright to even look up. Inside the Little Thompson Observatory, Meinte Veldhuis hits a switch, and a section of the observatory’s dome top slides open. The long, 18-inch diameter Tinsley Classical Cassegrain telescope is aimed at a seemingly featureless sky. He consults a program called simply “The Sky” on his computer, makes a few minor adjustments and in a reverential tone says, “Here! Look!”
A quarter face of the planet Venus fills the viewfinder despite the fact that this is broad daylight. Veldhuis then points a small solar telescope directly at the sun. The telescope’s hydrogen-alpha filter makes it safe for us to stare at the nuclear fusion reaction 93 million miles away. He points out several sunspot fields three times the diameter of Earth flaming out from the edge of the sun.
A giant telescope, infinite space and an unfathomable big flaming ball really puts things into new perspective. This is only one of the many beautiful realities of astronomy. The Little Thompson Observatory has been expanding minds through space since its doors first opened.
The project started simply enough: Someone heard a telescope was available at Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles through the Telescopes in Education program. As in many can-do communities, three individuals started the movement to bring the telescope to Berthoud. Chet Rideout, Tom Melsheimer and Tom Patterson formed the Little Thompson Science Foundation to bring math and science down to Earth.
They wanted to put the telescope at the high school to promote math, science and physics, using astronomy as the teaching tool. “And that is why they put it at the high school rather than on a mountain top where the air is more clear,” Veldhuis said.
The idea took off, and they didn’t work alone for long. More than 150 volunteers helped Berthoud High School teacher and contractor Tom Patterson build an observatory right next to the football field. Local businesses donated materials and equipment to make the observatory a reality. They opened the doors to the public in June 1999. More than 50,000 people have visited space through the observatory’s telescopes since then.
Almost every junior high and high school from Fort Collins to Denver, from Sterling to the foothills, has visited the observatory. Sixty-eight percent of all visitors are school groups, and the other one-third is the general public who attend 15 to 20 programs a month, an amazing schedule considering the observatory is staffed entirely by volunteers. All of the programs are free, as the observatory is funded entirely by donations. “A lot of our visitors have never looked through a telescope before, so they are really wowed,” Veldhuis said.
BEYOND MATH and physics, the Little Thompson Observatory also is expanding the understanding of native culture on this continent.
Every culture has its own set of constellations with accompanying beliefs and mythologies. We are typically taught Greek and Roman constellations, but the volunteers at the observatory wanted to also teach the constellations and mythologies of Colorado’s American Indians.
They soon discovered the native Coloradan constellations have been passed down solely by oral means. Each tribe has different stories.