Berthoud's Little Thompson Observatory

With a the help of a very special telescope, the Little Thompson Observatory is bringing space home to Berthoud.



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In their research they learned that the Lakota, a nation from the upper Great Plains, wrote down their constellations, which are commonly accepted among many American Indian cultures.

The observatory volunteers decided to decorate one wall with the Lakota constellations. They invited Lakota medicine man Sam Moves Camp to Berthoud. Moves Camp’s grandfather fought alongside the great warrior Crazy Horse.

He arrived in Berthoud accompanied by Lakota singers and drummers and dedicated the wall during one of the public star nights. Painted above the constellation wall is one of the Lakota traditional sayings, “What is on the Earth is on the stars and what is on the stars is on the Earth.” It emphasizes the connected nature of not only the people on this planet, but our planet’s connection to the infinite space beyond.

The fortuitous acquisition of another large telescope will soon allow the observatory to connect immediately with astronomers and classrooms all across this planet. In 1963, the California Institute of Technology built a 24-inch telescope for NASA to determine whether the surface of the moon was solid enough to support a spacecraft, or if it was just deep dust. They needed to know whether the astronauts would be safe or would sink out of sight upon touchdown.

They used the telescope to identify several potential landing spots. As history has proved, the scientists peering through this telescope got it right. NASA returned the telescope to Caltech where it was used for many years for research, including a project that may have identified the first black hole in space.

By 2004, the telescope was too small for modern research. It became available through the Telescopes in Education program. A flurry of letters erupted from Berthoud. After several years of lobbying and organizing, Berthoud was awarded the historic telescope. Volunteers drove to California with a truck and trailer, loaded up the telescope and drove it back to Berthoud, storing it in a nearby barn until volunteers can finish building another observation dome to house it.

The observatory is working with Software Bisque, a Colorado company, to get the telescope online so classrooms around the world can log in, focus the telescope on what they want to see and study astronomy in real time over the web. It’s a fitting purpose for such a historic telescope.

Until then, everyone is welcome to view the heavens for free at one of the observatory’s public star nights. Some of the recent highlights include a full lunar eclipse in 2011, the Mercury transit between the sun and Earth in 2006 and the Venus transit in 2012.

One of the most popular events took place in 2003 when Mars was at its closest point to Earth in 50,000 years. Through the observatory’s telescopes people saw Mars’ polar caps, its highlands and its lowlands.

“It was amazing how many people wanted to see it,” Veldhuis said. “It was a total mob scene.”

As we walk planet Earth, completely obsessed with the skin on the apple we occupy, it is easy to forget that the planet’s core and space above even exists. Getting to the core is a problem, but getting in touch with space is easy and inexpensive, brought to us by the hardworking volunteers of the Little Thompson Science Foundation and the Little Thompson Observatory.

See the public star night schedule at starkids.org.

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