Colorado Mountain College professor Jimmy Westlake looks to the sky above Steamboat Springs on Tuesday evening at the crystal observatory, which the Sky Club had built on the college campus. The observatory has several areas to view the stars along with a large-scale model of the solar system. The exhibit is slated to be open from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday this weekend with a $10 entry fee. All proceeds to go the Sky Club.

Photo by John F. Russell

Colorado Mountain College professor Jimmy Westlake looks to the sky above Steamboat Springs on Tuesday evening at the crystal observatory, which the Sky Club had built on the college campus. The observatory has several areas to view the stars along with a large-scale model of the solar system. The exhibit is slated to be open from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday this weekend with a $10 entry fee. All proceeds to go the Sky Club.

CMC Sky Club presenting one-of-a-kind ice observatory

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— Astronomy buffs and ice art enthusiasts will have a chance this weekend to tour an exhibit that Colorado Mountain College professor Jimmy Westlake says is the first of its kind.

Well, he’s hoping they will get that chance — “weather permitting,” Westlake said.

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Sky Club member Christine Krentz adjusts a light under one of the icy planets in a large-scale model of the solar system. The model is part of the crystal observatory, which was set up on the campus of the Colorado Mountain College. The observatory includes the model, a Stonehenge replica made out of snow and several places where visitors can observe the stars.

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Students in the Sky Club have re-created Stonehenge on the Colorado Mountain College campus as part of the crystal observatory.

Well, he’s hoping they will get that chance — “weather permitting,” Westlake said.

CMC’s Sky Club has been busy working on the exhibit at the college’s campus for the past few weeks. It will feature a proportionally scaled model of the solar system, a Snowhenge — the icy version of England’s Stonehenge — and a full crystal observatory.

Westlake and the Sky Club will provide a full tour of the exhibit, complete with explanations at each stop. Those stops include LED-lit ice models of the solar system’s planets, spaced out to scale, as well as a laser light show.

Three telescopes also will be set up to observe certain galaxy features, such as the Pleiades star cluster, Jupiter and the Orion Nebula.

The only impending roadblock to the Crystal Observatory opening will be the incoming storm, which could cloud the skies throughout the weekend.

Should that happen, Westlake said, it could force a postponement.

“We’ll be patient,” Westlake said. “We just had a two-week stretch of beautiful weather. It was great for building, but for the longer that stretch lasted, the more concerned I got. It wasn’t going to last forever.”

The original plan is for the observatory to be open six nights — Friday and Saturday this weekend and Thursday through Sunday during Winter Carnival, from Feb. 6 through 9.

But while Westlake holds out hope about the weather, his focus also is on the hundreds of hours of work it took to piece together the exhibit. Should the clouds recede, he’s hoping turnout will provide a good fundraiser for the Sky Club.

“My experience has been that if you have colored lights and icicles, they will come,” Westlake said. “We have the added attraction of a little education with the solar system thing and telescopes.”

A clockwise walk through the observatory reveals just how much effort was put into creating this one-of-a-kind exhibit.

Each ice-ball planet was created by filling balloons with water and freezing them, with Pluto being the smallest and the sun being the largest, with a 2-foot diameter. The brick wall built to host the laser light show was constructed using Tupperware slabs.

The Snowhenge — one of the exhibit’s final installments — was constructed using long wooden slurry molds packed with a snow and water mix that then were propped up.

“It’s a miniature of the real Stonehenge, just not to scale,” Westlake said. “The idea here is snow pillars could be used as alignments to align with the rising equinox sun, or something like that. It is aligned for north-south. They enter at due north.”

The most noticeable of all the exhibit’s features very well may be the crystal observatory, the original idea around which the entire show was centered to begin with. Builders ripped icicles off local roofs to build most of the castle-like structure.

And since Jan. 17, club members and Westlake have taken turns hosing down the structure to give it its crystallized form during sub-freezing night temperatures.

“It was mostly just time consuming,” Westlake said. “You have to spray it every night and let it grow a little bit. Then spray the next night and let it grow with more icicles.”

The numerous man hours have Westlake hoping the Sky Club fundraiser can be the winter rival to Screamboat, CMC’s Halloween moneymaker that brings in huge crowds and dollars for the school.

The exhibit is slated to be open from 7 to 10 p.m. this Friday and Saturday with a $10 entry fee. All proceeds to go the Sky Club.

To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll

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