BR observatory celebrates 15th anniversary

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Baton Rouge Astronomical Society Vice President Merrill Hess, left, presents BREC's Highland Road Park Observatory with an autographed photo of Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke during the observatory's 15th anniversary celebration Saturday. Observatory manager Christopher Kersey, right, said the photo will be on rotating display in the building.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Baton Rouge Astronomical Society Vice President Merrill Hess, left, presents BREC's Highland Road Park Observatory with an autographed photo of Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke during the observatory's 15th anniversary celebration Saturday. Observatory manager Christopher Kersey, right, said the photo will be on rotating display in the building.

Amateur astronomer Wally Pursell has gazed at the heavens and seen more of the universe than most people, but stars and planets are not the most interesting things he’s seen at the Highland Road Park Observatory.

“The people,” he laughed. “It’s the most strangest people, the most wonderful people come through that door.”

Pursell, 83, of Berkeley, Calif., an early backer of the observatory project, was one of nearly 30 visitors, amateur astronomers and future astronomers who attended the observatory’s 15th anniversary celebration Saturday night.

Christopher Kersey, observatory manager, said stargazing is only part of the observatory’s mission.

It also hosts ham radio parties, summer camps and science academies for children on Saturdays.

“The whole idea is we don’t live in a community by ourselves, we live in a big universe and we want the community and kids to appreciate that,” said John Wefel, 68, who teaches physics and astronomy at LSU and runs the Louisiana Space Consortium.

Past the winding driveway, away from the headlights meandering around Highland Road, the 3,400-square-foot building ­— repurposed by the East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission from a defunct driving range office to its current function — holds memorabilia, such as old telescopes and autographed pictures from astronauts.

Astronomers using the observatory’s 20- and 16-inch reflecting telescopes have discovered more than 40 asteroids.

Walter Cooney and Matt Collier discovered one they named “Baton Rouge” between Mars and Jupiter on Sept. 25, 1998. Plaques adorn the room commemorating the Cooney-Collier and other asteroid discoveries.

The 20-inch reflecting telescope, a tad smaller than a Mini Cooper, rests in the dome atop the observatory building, while the 16-inch telescope sits outside at ground level to make it convenient for people who find it difficult to climb the spiral staircase to the main telescope.

The observatory — a joint venture between BREC, which owns the land and building; LSU, the owner of both telescopes and equipment on the property; and BRAS, the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society, which supplies the workers — began operations in 1997, but the seeds for the facility were planted long before then.

Pursell and Craig Brenden founded BRAS in 1981 when they first met at LSU’s old observatory, which is no longer in use, at the Bob R. Jones-Idlewild Research Station in Clinton. Both were looking for an amateur astronomy club to join, but after talking, they decided to start one themselves.

“Our intention was to eventually get an observatory here in Baton Rouge,” Pursell said.

Getting funding for that observatory turned out to be a major impediment.

BRAS members approached receptive LSU physics and astronomy professors about building an observatory in Baton Rouge.

The professors applied for and received grant money to buy the 20-inch telescope. Years later, professors secured more grant money to buy the 16-inch telescope.

Pursell said former BREC Superintendent Gene Young liked the idea of a Baton Rouge observatory and offered BRAS the old driving range building, which was scheduled for demolition.

“It’s a strange, eight-sided affair and it looks otherworldly,” Kersey said.

“The whole thing just kind of fell together at the same time,” Pursell added.

Christina Simino, 9, of Baton Rouge, said she enjoys coming to the science academies that the observatory staff hosts on Saturday mornings because she loves the experiments they perform and what they learn through science.

“I think it’s fun to look at the stuff that you get to see through the telescope, like Saturn and Jupiter and the nebulas and globular clusters,” she said.

Christina’s mother, Debra Simino, 46, of Baton Rouge, said she loves bringing Christina and her other daughter, Elizabeth Simino, 13, to observatory functions and thinks more people should know about the observatory because of the educational value it represents to the community.

“I mean this is the gem of Baton Rouge that people don’t know about,” Debra Simino said.

“They just get wonderful, quality scientific education and my daughter is turning into a scientific inventor and that is a result of coming here on Saturday mornings.”