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They saw stars and Saturn at Lake Afton

Stargazers line up outside the Lake Afton Public Observatory on Friday; the observatory reopened a year after budget cuts closed it.
Stargazers line up outside the Lake Afton Public Observatory on Friday; the observatory reopened a year after budget cuts closed it. The Wichita Eagle

Years ago, when his dad took him to the Lake Afton Public Observatory, Michael Neth felt grateful to his dad and captivated for a lifetime by the planets and stars.

In the years since, he has become a programmer and designer, a husband – and the father of an intensely curious daughter named Tegan, now 5 1/2 years old.

Friday night, when the observatory near Goddard reopened after a year off, Tegan came there with her parents, and a stuffed animal peeking out from the back of her school backpack. And Tegan and Michael and his wife Michelle Frikken took a good, long look through the observatory telescope at Saturn with its rings, a billion miles from Tegan’s Earth.

Neth does volunteer work for the observatory, helping rebuild its website as its fans worked hard to reopen it after Wichita State University budget cuts shut it down a year ago. “I got involved because of Tegan,” Neth said. “She’s just really curious.”

He and Michelle took Tegan not only through the line of people peeking through the scope but then into the room next door, where they showed an eager Tegan how to use observatory computer programs and displays to learn about galaxies, globular and open clusters of stars, and how the sun powers itself.

Neth and his family and a long line of people awaited their peeks at the sky when the observatory opened at 8 p.m. Friday. The Kansas sky was still well-lit with the setting sun, but Saturn was visible through the scope.

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A lot of volunteers, many from a group called the Kansas Astronomical Observers, worked hard to restart the observatory, said Harold Henderson, one of the leaders of the group. But that group needs help from stargazers to keep the observatory open, he said. They need people to go there, and go again.

The observatory will open again Saturday night and Sunday night from 8 to 10 p.m. It is located at 25000 W. 39th St. South, also called MacArthur Road, near Goddard.

Brian Schultz, a retired U.S. Navy sailor from Wichita, is one of the star enthusiasts who goes regularly to the observatory to teach anyone who wants to know how to look at the moon, the stars, the planets that fill our sky.

Stargazing in depth requires a little training, and some equipment, he said. Because the Earth rotates, the moon, or a planet or star you might look at in a telescope will quickly “move” out of view, though it’s our planet moving. So stargazers like him equip themselves with electronic attachments that keep the target in view – and can take photos.

He sat in the parking lot on Friday showing children and adults a small telescope with electronic attachments, all about $400. Some of the veteran astronomers who were setting up telescopes near Schultz, on the concrete pad outside the observatory, were carrying telescopes the width of logs that cost thousands of dollars.

Schultz remembers the moment he first loved the night sky.

“I was on a ship in the Pacific,” he said. “A frigate; I don’t remember what year, or what part of the ocean.

“I went up on deck during the night.

“There’s no light pollution out there.

“And I saw the Milky Way at sea.”

Roy Wenzl: 316-268-6219, @roywenzl

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