The sky’s the limit for the Big Sky Astronomy Club

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The Milky Way is visible over the visitor center at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park during the last Star Party of the year Aug. 31. The Star Party is put on with the help of the Big Sky Astronomy Club.

Stars sparkle, twinkle and shine, like jewels in black velvet, have inspired myths and legends since the dawn of time and hold a mystical fascination for millions of people. They guide travelers across the open seas, continue to inspire discovery and controversy and have changed our view of our place in the universe.

But most people don’t even look up at night and notice the stars — something the members of the Big Sky Astronomy Club would like to change.

Formed in the summer of 2000 and based in Kalispell, the club is now the largest astronomy club in the state and boasts members from Eureka to Twin Bridges.

“We have about 30 members right now,” club president Mark Paulson said. “I was among the initial group that formed the club. We ended up taking a continuing education class at Flathead Valley Community College together, and the idea of forming a club came up, so we did it, and it’s gone from there.”

Although Paulson and several other members are experienced stargazers, the club is not only for people with experience and equipment.

“Prior knowledge is not necessary,” said Marty Miller, a board member for the club. “We had a gal come in that knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about four years ago. Had no telescope, had never done this before. Right now she’s wearing a ranger’s uniform at the park and she’s pointing out all the constellations for all the visitors and manning a telescope. So we can take you from nothing to a lot in a short amount of time, and you’ll have fun while you’re getting there.”

Education is a large part of the club’s mission, in addition to enjoying the beauty of the night sky.

“We try to present some type of educational program at each meeting, about what’s up in the sky, and we offer classes on how to use telescopes,” Miller said. “We have two club telescopes we have built that are available to those who don’t have one, and we’ve had some telescopes donated to us that visitors can use.”

In addition to educational presentations at club meetings, Paulson said the club regularly puts on presentations for schools, scouting groups and other clubs, in addition to helping or leading “star parties” at Logan Pass or Lone Pine State Park.

“Our star parties are really popular, and the ones at Logan Pass can get easily around 500 people,” Paulson said. “We started putting them on 10 or 11 years ago at Big Mountain, and they became really popular. When Big Mountain was thinking of remodeling the Summit House, there were even plans to include an observatory, open to the public. But then it got sold and the new owners weren’t interested in that any more.”

Although the plans for an observatory at Big Mountain were scrapped, Paulson and other club members didn’t let the dream die, and instead looked to the south and Blacktail Mountain Ski Area for help.

“They were really enthusiastic about the idea, since it would bring more summer traffic up there,” Miller said. “We could piggyback off their forest permit, and utilities were already in place, we’d just have to tap into them, so it would have been great for everyone.”

However, that extra traffic was a roadblock club members hadn’t anticipated. Paulson said the club would have been expected to pay for extensive road maintenance, and they simply did not have the money to make that possible.

“Our dues are $20 a year per person or $25 for a family,” Paulson said. “It’s very minimal, and we can’t build an observatory on that. So we decided we needed to become a nonprofit organization, which has opened up other funding options for us.”

The proposed observatory would include a public meeting area and education center. In addition, Miller said the observatory would have remote viewing capabilities, making it a great addition to the school education programs.

“With remote viewing, we could go somewhere, log onto the Internet and point the telescope wherever we wanted, and everyone could see it, without having their eye to the lens,” Miller said. “Three of our members with home observatories already have this capability, so we have the experience, and we’re capable of doing it. All we need is an observatory.”

Paulson said the total cost of any observatory would be very site-dependent, but “assuming we didn’t have to worry about the land, if I had to throw out a number, I would say on the outside, the most we’d ever want and what could fulfill our wildest dreams would be a quarter-million dollars. That would give us an incredibly nice facility. But we’d be happy with less and take a somewhat nice facility.”

Paulson said the club hasn’t done much to look at ways to generate that money yet, but he joked that they might be interested in selling naming rights, “like for a football stadium. We’ll call it whatever you want, if you pay for it; it’s not at all off the table, and it’s something we still very much want to do.”

Even though the observatory plans are on hold, Miller said there is another option the club is seriously considering, and one that will require significantly less money.

“We’re interested in getting a portable planetarium so we can take that to schools and groups and show them the sky, at any time,” Miller said. “It’s basically an inflatable dome and a digital projector, and that will run us around $16,000, so it’s much more doable.”

But even if the observatory or planetarium remain out of reach financially, Miller and Paulson said the club will continue providing free educational programs and encouraging people to experience the beauty of the night sky.

“The sky’s the limit, really,” Paulson said. “All it takes is money.”

For more information on the Big Sky Astronomy Club, meeting dates or special events, go online to www.bigskyastroclub.org.

Reporter Melissa Walther may be reached at 758-4474 or by email at mwalther@dailyinterlake.com.

A site rendering of the proposed observatory at Blacktail Mountain includes an education center, open to the public.

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