Local

Lake Afton Observatory comes out of the 'dark ages'

The Lake Afton Observatory closed in August. It may reopen by Labor Day weekend.
The Lake Afton Observatory closed in August. It may reopen by Labor Day weekend. File photo

Some good news for stargazers and Wichita nostalgics: The Lake Afton Public Observatory will likely reopen Labor Day weekend.

And it will get a long-overdue technological upgrade. The observatory will boast a new logo, with social media and online presence as well as interactive screens and tablets in the observatory.

And possibly some virtual reality experiences in outer space.

A local enthusiast club called the Kansas Astronomical Observers has planned to reopen the observatory since the announcement of its closure last year. It took awhile to get the switch sorted – about 11 months.

On Wednesday, Sedgwick County commissioners will vote on whether to lease the observatory to the Kansas Astronomical Observers.

On Wednesday, Sedgwick County commissioners will vote on whether to lease the observatory to the Kansas Astronomical Observers.

“Up to that point, we don’t have a key,” said Fred Gassert, president of the Kansas Astronomical Observers.

The county currently owns the property, which sits next to Lake Afton, 15 miles west of the airport.

The observatory closed in August after 35 years of showing Kansans the stars.

Wichita State University ran the site, but could no longer afford the annual costs when it switched from being a moneymaker to an expense of roughly $50,000 to $70,000 per year. Annual attendance had dropped to about 4,000 people – half what it was when it opened in 1981.

Gassert said he plans to use the observatory’s nonprofit status to collect corporate sponsorships and individual donations in order to pay for utility and maintenance costs not covered by admission.

He said the observatory will be entirely volunteer-run and will keep admission prices the same or less than before closing – $8 for adults and between $4 and $6 for children.

Public outcry about the closure fueled support to reopen the stargazing landmark.

The Kansas Astronomical Observers led the reopening effort, and a relatively new civic hacking group called Open Wichita volunteered time and resources to help the observatory technologically.

Michael Neth, brigade captain for the Open Wichita observatory project, said Open Wichita will develop interactive websites to run on tablets and screens in the observatory.

Visitors will be able to click on pictures and facts, rather than simply read from static display boards.

But arguably the coolest addition would be a look into outer space via virtual reality. A computer-generated simulation of an environment allows users to interact with something in what feels to be a more real and physical experience.

Neth said the observatory would likely use cardboard virtual reality glasses, rather than expensive helmets.

“It would be cool to come here and experience space with your own eyes and your VR eyes,” he said, referring to the real-life telescopes coupled with virtual images. “That’s the pie in the sky, if we get enough money to do that. We want fun, interesting stuff to do while you’re waiting to go into the telescope room.”

It would be cool to come here and experience space with your own eyes and your VR eyes. That’s the pie in the sky, if we get enough money to do that.

Michael Neth, Open Wichita

Neth said he became interested in helping to reopen the Lake Afton Observatory because of his memories of it from when he was young.

“But because they had such poor marketing before, I completely forgot about the place,” he said.

So when he heard it would close, he took his 5-year-old daughter, who had never been to the observatory.

“It would just be really sad for kids to miss out on that,” he said.

He and Open Wichita took over the observatory’s marketing, social media and web presence. They created a new logo and launched a blog-style site for the time being, but will reveal a more business-styled website closer to opening the observatory.

Mobility

The observatory was built in 1979 through an agreement with the university, the Wichita school district, the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County. The school district later pulled out of the project because of budget concerns, and eventually the partnership included only the university and the county.

The Kansas Astronomical Observers said WSU donated the observatory equipment and main telescope to the nonprofit.

Gassert said the observatory would have operating hours similar to what it previously had – Friday and Saturday evenings with varied seasonal times depending on sunset.

It will also be open for school or community group visits.

Part of the reason attendance declined in recent years was fewer school field trips.

But Henderson said the Kansas Astronomical Observers brings a new dynamic: mobility. Because the group’s members have portable telescopes, the observatory will be able to bring the experience to schools around the area.

Previously, the observatory gave talks and presentations at schools in the area but couldn’t bring its telescope.

“We’re portable now,” Henderson said. “We’re not a building with a large, heavy telescope that can’t move.”

Gabriella Dunn: 316-268-6400, @gabriella_dunn

Donations

To donate to the Lake Afton Public Observatory, go to lakeafton.com or e-mail Harold Henderson at hhenderson@lakeafton.com.

Source: Kansas Astronomical Observers

  Comments