Culture

Carlton Observatory pulls the universe closer to Yamhill County

By Emily Hamilton (OPB)
Jan. 12, 2023 8 p.m.

The nonprofit hopes to build a community science center at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum.

The Carlton Observatory in Yamhill County is working to raise funds to build a new community science center complete with a planetarium, observatory, and maker-space at McMinnville’s Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum.

On Friday night, the nonprofit group will host a star talk at the Evergreen Museum with Shane Larson, research associate professor of physics at Northwestern University. Larson will discuss how a breakthrough by astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt first allowed humans to measure the true size and scale of the universe.

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The idea for an observatory began when Forrest Babcock and Janet Zuelke, a husband-and-wife team, started to wonder what they should do with what Zuelke described as their “big blue telescope.”

This photo, which was obtained from the Carlton Observatory, shows Forrest Babcock with the “Big Blue Telescope" in 2019.

This photo, which was obtained from the Carlton Observatory, shows Forrest Babcock with the “Big Blue Telescope" in 2019.

Courtesy of Carlton Observatory

Originally part of the couple’s personal collection, this telescope is so big “it needs a trailer to haul around,” Zuelke said. “We were getting to the age where we thought, what are we going to do with this big thing?” After a few weeks of brainstorming, we said, ‘Well, why don’t we build our own observatory and just open it to the public?’”

Babcock has a background in optics and telescope building.

“I’ve been an amateur astronomer since I was in grade school,” he said. “I built a telescope, a 6-inch reflector when I was in high school.”

Zuelke brings expertise in event planning, fundraising, business ownership, and her own passion for astronomy.

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Together, they hope this new community science center can foster an “engaged, imaginative and scientifically literate community in Yamhill County.”

They want to provide opportunities for kids to study astronomy and experience the night sky — and for science teachers, a local resource they can use to build curriculum.

The observatory got its name when the couple gathered a group of close friends for an evening of star gazing in Carlton, Oregon.

“We looked at Jupiter, we looked at Saturn and we looked at a beautiful quarter phase of the moon,” Zuelke said. “And then we sat down and said, ‘What if we wanted to build an observatory right here in Carlton? Would you help us?’ And unequivocally they all jumped up and said yes.”

This photo, which was obtained from the Carlton Observatory, shows Babcock and Zuelke’s “Big Blue Telescope.”

This photo, which was obtained from the Carlton Observatory, shows Babcock and Zuelke’s “Big Blue Telescope.”

Courtesy of Carlton Observatory

Later, The Webb School in Claremont, California, donated a 45-seat planetarium to the project. Babcock and Zuelke collected five more high-quality telescopes to go with “Big Blue.”

So, the observatory needed space to expand.

Babcock and Zuelke asked the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum for two acres of available land.

“They said yes,” Zuelke said.

Today, Babcock and Zuelke continue to work towards their observatory dream by raising funds, holding star parties when conditions permit and hosting regular star talks and other events. They believe looking at the sky and learning about the universe has a unique power to open and expand the imagination.

“It’s a thing that gets you because you’re looking at something with your naked eye,” Zuelke said. “Your feet are on planet Earth. And the thing you’re looking at is 800 million miles away. And it opens up the curiosity and the imagination in a person. When they use their eye to look through the eyepiece of a big telescope, which is what we have, it brings it down to a visceral level. In the youngest kids and the oldest person.”

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