Life

Eastern Iowa Observatory offers a chance to see the stars and so much more

Facility on the southern edge of Palisades-Kepler State Park near Mount Vernon

A 24-inch Boller and Chivens telescope is seen at the Palisades-Dows Observatory near Ely on Thursday, May 21, 2020. The
A 24-inch Boller and Chivens telescope is seen at the Palisades-Dows Observatory near Ely on Thursday, May 21, 2020. The observatory is operated by the Cedar Amateur Astronomers, who hold public events throughout the year. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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A lifelong interest in astronomy and outer space led Scott Bounds to pursue three degrees in physics. After a stint at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington, D.C., he’s worked as a research scientist at the University of Iowa Department of Physics and Astronomy for 21 years.

Yet he learned about the Eastern Iowa Observatory and Learning Center the way many locals do: His son’s Cub Scout pack scheduled a visit.

“Up until then, I didn’t even know the observatory existed,” Bounds said of the facility on the southern edge of Palisades-Kepler State Park near Mount Vernon.

When he visited the observatory that night about 10 years ago, he was floored by what he saw.

“They took us out to this big 24-inch telescope, that, unless you’re a fairly wealthy astronomy buff, you’re not going to have anything like that,” Bounds said. “That’s what really wowed me.”

He learned that the Linn County Conservation Department and a club, the Cedar Amateur Astronomers, ran the observatory. He joined the club “almost immediately,” Bounds said. And he’s been involved ever since, currently serving as the club’s president — for the second time — and scouting program coordinator.

LIFELONG ASTRONOMY BUFF

A childhood interest in space was almost inevitable: Bounds grew up in Huntsville, Ala., also known as the Rocket City. That’s where NASA did much of the early rocket design work for the Apollo space missions.

He visited NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville at least twice a year, read science books and magazines, and owned a small telescope. In college, Bounds joined the astronomy club and considered studying astronomy in graduate school before sticking with physics.

“But I always maintained an interest in astronomy,” he said.

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Bounds moved to Iowa City in 1999. As a research scientist in the space physics realm — the field that acclaimed UI scientist James Van Allen effectively started — he builds instruments for spacecraft and rockets. His specialty is near-earth phenomena, such as aurora and radiation belts.

The UI Physics and Astronomy department has a couple of telescopes, but he never used them. At home, his backyard wasn’t ideal for viewing the night sky. Years went by until his wife suggested he join their son on the Cub Scouts’ visit to the observatory.

That’s when Bounds found his home as an amateur astronomer.

For Bounds, part of the appeal of astronomy is the unknown.

“What is out there? Where do we fit in this universe?” he said. “We can see the stars but can’t go to them, at least not in our lifetime.”

Astronomy club

Cedar Amateur Astronomers started with a dozen members in 1979. The club now has more than 100 members. The group raised $700,000 to build an indoor learning center and create a permanent home for a two-ton, 1960s research telescope, donated by the University of Iowa, that club members refurbished and reassembled.

The club holds monthly meetings — virtually since March because of the coronavirus — and maintains the observatory’s equipment and grounds. The club also organizes public events and hosts private tours for scouts, school field trips and other groups.

If you have an interest in astronomy, the club is a good stepping-off point, Bounds said. The club caters to any level of experience in amateur astronomy.

They learn from each other what equipment to buy and what not to buy. After becoming a club member, Bounds said he bought a telescope — a 10-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain LX200. The downside of owning a telescope is having to set it up and align it before every use. The telescopes at the observatory are already set up and aligned.

“You can just go up there and start using them almost immediately,” Bounds said.

Public events

Grants secured by the club to build the Eastern Iowa Observatory and Learning Center came with a caveat: The club must open the facility and equipment to the public. And so it does.

The club schedules 12 public events each year, from March through November, including two each month in the summer. Typically, a speaker gives a 45-minute presentation on his or her area of expertise. For example, club member Carl Bracken organizes a Solar Day each July with daytime viewing of the sun.

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The astronomy club’s close relationship with the University of Iowa has played a vital role in the observatory having professional-grade equipment. The university donated the 24-inch Boller and Chivens Cassegrain professional-grade telescope used by researchers from the 1960s to the ’90s.

The 4,600-square-foot observatory also has a 16-inch computer-controlled telescope and several portable telescopes. Members also bring and set up their own telescopes for visitors to look through. On cloudy nights, visitors can still go out to the telescopes and see how they work.

“There’s a lot out there to see, to do. It’s more than they expect,” Bounds said. “We try to keep everything in good shape, working order and very presentable.”

The coronavirus pandemic hit just as the club’s 2020 schedule began. Public events were canceled and now, Bounds said, “we are taking things month by month.”

As soon as public events resume, they will be listed on the club’s website, cedar-astronomers.org/events.

“If the skies are clear, we have the scopes up and operating,” Bounds said. “The club will be out there, operating telescopes until the last person leaves.”

If you go

What: Eastern Iowa Observatory and Learning Center at Palisade-Dows Preserve

Who: Only open for public events and to Cedar Amateur Astronomers club members

Where: 1365 Ivanhoe Road, Ely (about halfway between Ely and Mount Vernon at the Palisades-Dows Preserve)

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Website: cedar-astronomers.org

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