Barnell has now settled on Rensselaerville to one day build an observatory

RENSSELAERVILLE — Ron Barnell wants to make Rensselaerville a destination for stargazers.

Barnell is the president of the Helderberg Earth and Sky Observatory Science Center, a group that hopes to eventually build an observatory in the rural town. Barnell has been meeting with Supervisor John Dolce and will present the group’s plans at a town board meeting on March 14.

Barnell has been looking for an opportune spot for an observatory in the Helderbergs for about 10 years now, and helped found HESO five years ago. HESO had previously planned to build an observatory in Berne.

Barnell, who studied science media at Syracuse University, volunteers at the Dudley Observatory, located at the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady. He said, too, that he helped start the star programs at the Octagon Barn in Knox, hosted by Amy and Russ Pokorny.

Barnell told The Enterprise that HESO wants to gain community connections and recognition before finding land to build an observatory. The main focus of talks with the town government is to make Rensselaerville a destination for stargazers, he said.

At the Feb. 14 Rensselaerville Town Board meeting, Dolce said that he had met with astronomers from HESO on Jan. 28.

“It was very interesting,” he said. “Except they have no money, no land.”

He went on to say that the group is looking for someone in town who has around 10 acres at a high elevation with a clear view of the Catskills. Councilman Brian Wood asked if the now-abandoned landfill on Kenyon Road would work.

“It’s high, looks at the Catskills … There are other possibilities,” he said. Dolce said he would look into it.

Barnell told The Enterprise on Friday that the land must be at a high elevation but also clear or able to be cleared to see the night sky.

In 2016, HESO presented plans to build an observatory at the town-owned Switzkill Farm in Berne, which the organization for years considered a desirable location due to its elevation and isolation. Last year, Barnell told The Enterprise that HESO was looking at other areas like Rensselaerville.

He said on Friday that Switzkill Farm was no longer an option due to conservation rules that wouldn’t allow the land to be cleared. He also said access to the top of the hill along with parking was a concern.

Rensselaerville has an “intellectual climate” that is a good fit for an observatory, said Barnell. He said that HESO has been doing programs with other Rensselaerville organizations, including the Rensselaerville Library and E.N. Huyck Preserve for the last two years and the Carey Institute for Global Good since last summer.

At the library, HESO often presents programs on topics like the solar system while hosting talks at the Carey Institute on subjects like astrophysics or manned spaceflight — a topic being discussed there on March 29.

Barnell said HESO is also working with the Huyck Preserve to get its dark-sky certification, and that HESO has done surveys of light pollution at the Huyck Preserve and Carey Institute. The group is also working with local schools.

Plans for an observatory are divided into three phases, said Barnell. The first phase is to create public programming; the second is to obtain land and raise money through grants and donations; and the third phase is to build the observatory.

An architect has designed plans for the building, Barnell said, and it would likely take around three years to build, depending on funding and resources.

Despite being relatively close to Albany, the Helderbergs have very dark night skies that make stargazing optimal. Barnell said that the Milky Way Galaxy can be seen stretching from Thacher Park to the Catskills.

“It’s stunning on a clear night,” he said.

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