Stepping into the Highland Road Park Observatory telescope control room feels like walking into a scene from Star Trek. Inside the room, there’s a computer that navigates a massive telescope and opens and closes the dome above as well as large buttons on one wall that look like they could shut down the whole city if you press them.
Open since 1997, Highland Road Park Observatory houses the largest admission-free professional-grade telescope in Louisiana: a 20-inch reflecting telescope that has been used to discover more than 40 asteroids and can offer glimpses of comets, stars, planets and nebula.
The observatory opened at BREC’s Highland Road Park at a former golf pro shop with the help of LSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. It has since become the go-to spot for local astronomers, LSU professors, students and children interested in space, with plenty of its computers, projectors and other equipment provided through the university.
Inside two dome-shaped buildings, visitors will find the telescope, along with a smaller 16-inch telescope for viewing during crowded nights.
Inside the larger dome, the walls are covered with educational posters, diagrams and images from space. With one circular walk around the observatory, visitors can learn about planets, stars and other parts of the universe using globes, pamphlets and interactive activities.
“We live in a universe where we have a constant show,” observatory manager Christopher Kersey says. “[Outer space] is like a free TV channel, but there are different programs on all [the channels] throughout the night.”
When the facility isn’t occupied with LSU students working on their studies or members of the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society, the observatory is open to the public for evening sky viewings and events such as “The Edge of Night,” where visitors can look at the sky through telescopes during twilight hour.
During larger celestial events like solar eclipses and the transit of Venus, the observatory has had up to 1,000 people in attendance taking turns to look through telescopes and ask their far-out questions to Kersey, observatory volunteers and LSU professors.
While the observatory team makes efforts with special outdoor lighting to create the best sky-viewing environment for its visitors, the rest of the city’s light pollution affects how much visitors can see from the observatory.
Street lamps around the city emit harsh white and blue hues skyward, making it harder for people to see more stars at night, Kersey says. He encourages residents as well as city crews who install outdoor lights or lamp posts to seek out full cutoff lights that emit less light to the sky, often with a yellow or orange hue that results in a darker sky better for stargazing.
Kersey aims to increase locals’ interest in space, and have more children and students enrolled in the observatory’s educational programs like Science Academy and Stargazers Camp.
“I want kids to be able to see the Milky Way without having to go somewhere else to see it,” Kersey says.
CHECK IT OUT
The Highland Road Park Observatory’s upcoming events
• Winter Space Exploration Camp (ages 9 to 13), Dec. 20-21, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
•Solar viewing, Dec. 22, noon-2 p.m.
•2019 Preview Party, Dec. 28, 6-10 p.m.
•Learn Your Sky (ages 18 and older), Jan. 5, 3:30-7:30 p.m.
•Learn Your Telescope (ages 18 and older), Jan. 19, 3:30-7:30 p.m.
Find more information at bro.lsu.edu.