Jimmy Westlake: A night at the Crystal Observatory
February 3, 2014
Steamboat Springs — About 70 visitors enjoyed the opening weekend of the Colorado Mountain College SKY Club's Crystal Observatory. Friday night was cloudy and snowy, but Saturday night brought some clearing skies and the chance to view some celestial wonders through the telescopes. I had the opportunity personally to welcome many visitors and give them a guided walking tour through the SKY Club's wintery astronomy park.
What can you expect to see and do at the Crystal Observatory?
The first stop is a fantastic demonstration of the effects that ultra-cold temperatures have on some common objects, temperatures like one might encounter on Pluto or one of the icy moons of Neptune. Then, a loop trail leads visitors through a scale model of our solar system, beginning with little Pluto and ending with the sun, which sits at the entrance to the Crystal Observatory.
Distances between planets are true to scale, with Pluto positioned 39 times Earth's distance from the sun. The sizes of the planets, while not precisely to scale, are representative in terms of largest to smallest. Each planet is a sphere of ice, illuminated from beneath by a colored light that is indicative of the true color of the planet.
After passing by blue Neptune and aquamarine Uranus, visitors arrive at the Cosmic Drive-In, where colorful laser effects are projected onto a screen made of over 500 snow bricks. Another laser flickers through the branches of the nearby trees.
Next, the trail empties into the courtyard of Snowhenge, a circular arrangement of six eight-foot tall snow-white monoliths, surrounding a telescope. Here, guests are invited to view the Seven Sisters star cluster – also called the Pleiades and the Subaru.
The trail then continues to the planet Saturn, encircled in icy rings. No, really – there's a ring of ice encircling the ice ball that represents Saturn — and you know it is cold outside when Saturn's rings have icicles hanging from them!
Moving on down the trail, visitors arrive at Jupiter, the largest planetary ice ball and now only five times Earth's distance from the sun. It is here that guests may enter the Jupiter 2 Snow Saucer for a look at the real planet Jupiter through an 8-inch telescope. Saturday night's guests got a great view of the cloud stripes in Jupiter's atmosphere and all four of Jupiter's giant moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
Upon exiting the Snow Saucer, visitors walk past the four inner worlds of the solar system in quick succession — reddish Mars, sapphire Earth, amber Venus and orange Mercury. At the end of the Solar System Stroll, only two paces beyond Earth, is a two-foot diameter ball of ice representing the sun. We tried making a three-foot diameter sun ball, but we couldn't lift it up onto its pedestal.
The sun marks the entrance to the Crystal Observatory itself, where another telescope is available for visitors to view the heavens. Seven icicle columns reach for the stars and form a ring 20 feet in diameter, where guests can cluster around the telescope for a peek at the Great Orion Nebula or other celestial wonders.
Colorful lights illuminate each icy column from within and fade from one color of the rainbow into another. It is truly a spectacular sight to behold.
The Crystal Observatory will be open on the CMC campus from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday through Sunday nights. Admission is $10 per person. Children under 6 years are admitted free, as are current CMC students.
Here's a tip: there is no better spot from which to view the Saturday night Winter Carnival events than from the SKY Club's Crystal Observatory. Dress warmly.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.