Great Basin National Park plans telescope

Three hundred miles from the glare of Las Vegas, Great Basin National Park is hard at work on plans to capitalize on its famously dark nights by playing host to a permanent research telescope.

Nevada’s only national park and its foundation are teaming up with the University of Nevada, Reno, and Western Nevada College to build what is being called the Great Basin Observatory.

It w ill feature a remote-controlled, medium-sized scope perfect for undergraduate and graduate students who can’t book time at the world’s largest observatories but still have research to d o.

First, though, backers of the plan must raise about $700,000 to buy and put up the 28-inch telescope and establish a foundation to keep it running.

Park Superintendent Steve Mietz said the idea has been in the works for several years now. The capital campaign should roll out in the coming days.

The Great Basin National Park Foundation hopes to raise the necessary funds by fall 2015 and have the telescope built in time for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in August 2016.

“It’s a very exciting project,” said Becky Mills, a former Great Basin superintendent who now heads up the park’s foundation from 600 miles away in Berkeley, Calif.

Great Basin is known for having some of the darkest, clearest night skies of any national park in the lower 48 states. In a letter of support for the telescope, Princeton University astrophysicist Michael Strauss called it “one of the best places to see the night sky unsullied by pollution or the lights of civilization.”

Just don’t expect to see some huge observatory dome atop Wheeler Peak, the park’s highest point at 13,159 feet. The telescope will be tucked away near the park’s staff housing area, roughly 7,000 feet above seal level, and it’s dome will barely stick up above the surrounding trees.

Mietz said most visitors probably won’t even know it’s there, which is just as well since it won’t be the kind of telescope you can look through with a traditional eyepiece.

“It’s like a giant digital camera,” Mietz said. “All the images will be put up on the Internet for people to see.”

Meanwhile, another telescope project is nearing completion just outside Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Astronomical Society is on pace to finish and dedicate its three-dome array of telescopes on Mount Potosi, about 30 miles southwest of the valley, in October.

The observatory is being built in partnership with the Boy Scouts at the 1,100-acre Kimball Scout Reservation.

Astronomical society vice president Jim Gianoulakis said the project has benefited from a host of donations, including a 16-inch telescope and mount worth about $40,000 from a doctor in North Carolina, three observatory domes worth about $21,000 from a Minnesota-based dome maker, and extensive site work courtesy of Justin Anderson of Las Vegas’ Terra Construction.

Though Mount Potosi offers a far less pristine night sky than Great Basin does, both observatory projects have a similar goal in mind, one that Princeton’s Strauss summed up in his letter: “to teach students about the wonders of the night sky.”

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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