HESO ‘in a holding pattern’ at Switzkill Farm

— Photo from Ron Barnell
A design of the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory in Ayrshire, Scotland, is the inspiration for an observatory that the Helderberg Earth and Sky Observatory hopes to build in the Hilltowns. The design includes an upper-level viewing gallery and two telescopes.

BERNE — An ambitious proposition to build an astronomical observatory in Berne is currently at a standstill.

Plans to build the observatory on the town-owned Switzkill Farm were discontinued this past fall, said Karen Schimmer, Berne’s deputy supervisor and the town council’s liaison for Switzkill Farm.

“We’re kind of in a holding pattern right now,” said Ron Barnell, the chairman of HESO.

Barnell said that, while the organization is still looking at Switzkill Farm as a possible location, HESO is looking as well at various places in the Hilltowns to build an observatory that would serve as place for educational programs for the public.

Barnell said that HESO is currently working on obtaining its status as a not-for-profit organization while offering holding events such as at the Rensselaerville Library. HESO leaders hope it will become a not-for-profit in a few months and then will be able to raise money for building an observatory.

“We’re kind of following our ‘2020 vision,’” said Barnell, explaining that that’s when the group hopes to have built the observatory.

In the meantime, Barnell said that HESO has been working with Berne-Knox-Westerlo, the University at Albany, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to create educational programming.

Schimmer noted that the Helderberg Earth and Sky Observatory had never had a formal agreement with the town, though it had aspired to build an astronomical observatory on the property in Berne where the surrounding darkness creates incredibly clear skies.

“The town cannot afford an observatory,” remarked Schimmer.

She said that Berne continues to host star parties and encourage stargazing at Switzkill Farm.

HESO’s planning committee had proposed such a structure to the Switzkill Farm Board in September 2016, projecting the cost at $1.25 million and anticipating grants, donations, and partnerships to finance the project.

The observatory in Berne would be the third of its kind in the state, along with the Adirondack Public Observatory in Tupper Lake and the Kopernik Observatory and Science Center in Vestal, near Binghamton, Schimmer said.

Switzkill Farm ranks 3, or “very dark,” on the Bortle scale in terms of darkness, similar to the Tupper Lake observatory.


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