The Lake Afton Public Observatory closed its doors a little more than a week ago, shuttered by financial struggles in recent years.
The Kansas Astronomical Observers, a local astronomy and telescope enthusiasts club, has stepped up in an attempt to save the observatory.
The group is working through the logistics of how to take over the observatory but has not devised a firm plan yet.
“We’re working toward that end, but is it finalized? No,” said Harold Henderson, a spokesman for the club.
The main snag in the facility’s changing-of-hands is the fact that Wichita State University owns the 16-inch telescope and other equipment within the building.
The group may be facing a significant fundraising challenge if it agrees to purchase the used equipment from the university.
Inside the observatory, about 20 miles southwest of Wichita, there is the classic 16-inch telescope as well as a small museum on space exploration.
The materials and programming inside the observatory belong to WSU.
“Whether they keep it, lease it, sell it – whatever happens to it, that’s their decision,” Henderson said. “WSU is looking over our plan. They agreed to it in principle, but there are details both on our side and on their side that need to be nailed down. We’re really in the discussion phase still.”
Greg Novacek, who is the director of the Fairmount Center for Science and Mathematics Education at WSU and was director of the observatory prior to its closing, said the sense he’s gotten from conversations he’s been involved in at WSU is that the school would sell the equipment to the club.
When the telescope was purchased 35 years ago, it cost $80,000, Novacek said. A comparable telescope purchased in 2015 would cost between $125,000 and $150,000, he said.
“Now, this is a research-grade instrument – you can purchase a 16-inch telescope for less than that,” Novacek said.
When the observatory was built in 1979, it was a joint venture among WSU, Sedgwick County, the city of Wichita and the Wichita school district, but the city and its public schools pulled out years ago for financial reasons.
WSU announced in July the observatory would be closing because the university could not afford it any longer.
Novacek said in addition to being used for public events every weekend, WSU students occasionally used the telescope as well.
“There’s not any cutting-edge research you can do with a telescope of that size, but it taught students how to do research,” Novacek said. “The university looked at it as a public outreach, something they could do for the people of south-central Kansas to acquaint them with the wonders of the universe we live in.”
The building itself is owned by Sedgwick County.
Richard Ranzau, chairman of the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners, said the county is just waiting on the club and Wichita State to come up with an agreement.
“We’re all supportive of it here in the county, but those two entities have to work it out,” Ranzau said. “They want to continue with the same agreement (the commission) had with WSU, and we’re fully supportive of that.”
When Wichita State was operating the facility, it did not pay the county rent – Sedgwick County maintained the building in exchange for WSU providing programming and other operations.
Until the Kansas Astronomical Observers and Wichita State finalize the details, the Lake Afton observatory will remain empty, the end of a more-than-three-decade era.
“It’s bittersweet – it’s kind of like sending your kid to college,” Novacek said. “I hope they are successful in taking over the observatory, because I would hate for the community to lose that resource.”