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The night sky is magical at Community Observatory in Placerville

By: Pat Grahek, Special to the Gold Country News Service
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PLACERVILLE, CA - Where can you go for free on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening that is kid-safe, educational, entertaining and fun every weekend of the year, weather permitting? The answer is a short drive to the Cameron Park Rotary Club Community Observatory located in Placerville. Come enjoy the world of astronomy with enthusiastic docents who will guide you through the wonders of the night sky. Completed in 2006 by the Cameron Park Rotary Club at the El Dorado Center campus of Folsom Lake College, the observatory is operated by the El Dorado County Office of Education. The facility features several large telescopes and a recently built outdoor Sky Theater. Since opening to the public, the observatory has hosted more than 31,000 visitors. What is there to do when you get there? After parking in the college parking lot (free night time parking on the weekends), take the short “Observatory Trail” up to start your adventure. You will be greeted by trained docents who will provide information about the facility and what is being viewed that evening. The fun generally begins in a lay-back 40-person circular seating Sky Theater, where a docent will take you on a tour of the visible constellations, provide a little mythological lore and answer any questions. The Sky Theater is a great place to start and end your visit at the observatory. After leaving the Sky Theater you will venture up to the main building. When entering the Observatory you will immediately see why it is frequently called a magical place. To your left is a presentation classroom with two video screens displaying celestial views, ample inside seating and red lighting to acclimate your night vision. To your right is the spacious open Observatory room with its roll-off roof, two large telescopes on computer-controlled mountings, one smaller telescope and benched seating all around. This is “The Magic Room” that you have traveled to see and the docents will do their best to make it a most enjoyable evening. The large permanently mounted telescopes include a new 17-inch scientific-grade telescope recently donated by the GenCorp Foundation and a 14-inch telescope with an attached world-class 4-inch wide field refractor. The 14-inch telescope features a new galaxy-searching camera displaying color images of faint celestial objects on a wall mounted screen. The camera projection on the screen is perfect for small children, groups and the handicapped. Docents will assist you in viewing the magic of the night sky, explain what you are seeing and if you ask too many questions you might be asked to join as a future volunteer docent. There is an ample docent staff but we are always in search for additional volunteers who have a passion for the night sky. The public is invited to visit the observatory each clear sky Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening. During the winter months, we’re open from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. and summer months from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. The observatory is available Monday through Thursday evenings for private events for community organizations. Docents can create an evening of viewing. Contact the El Dorado County Office of Education representative Cindy Terpe at (530) 295-2213 during business hours to reserve the date. If you need handicap access to travel up the trail, call the observatory during operating hours at (530) 344-5707 and we can guide your vehicle up for drop-off (this phone number is also good for determining weather closures). Want a chance to safely view the surface of the sun and possibly see sun spots or solar eruptions? With a generous donation from the Placerville Kiwanis, we have the ability to safely view the sun through a special telescope and filters. Come visit us every third Saturday morning 9 to 11 a.m. at the Observatory, weather permitting. The Cameron Park Rotarians, Folsom Lake College, El Dorado Office of Education and the docent team are very proud of this magical place. Visit our website at communityobservatory.com for directions and everything you’ll need to know about the facility and upcoming special events. Contributed by Pat Grahek, lead docent for the Cameron Park Rotary Club Community Observatory in Placerville. Learn more at communityobservatory.com.